Students use COVID-19 as attendance excuse, different learning norms arise

Photo of an empty classroom
Arjin Unlu/Staff
Class attendance drops as students use the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to opt for remote learning.

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After missing an important day of class, campus freshman Steve Escobar used the excuse that he had been exposed to COVID-19 while visiting home to ask his lecturer for an opportunity to make up the work he missed.

The exposure was real, Escobar said, but the story was partially false. Escobar only received an exposure notification text after he had emailed his lecturer, notifying him to get tested due to an exposure at a banquet he had attended. Though his lecturer was initially hesitant, the makeup request was eventually accommodated, according to Escobar.

“The professor’s role is initially to accommodate, knowing we are coming out of a pandemic,” Escobar said, “But it is also hard to accommodate knowing that we are three years into the pandemic and students are becoming more unreliable.”

Campus freshman Adrian Martinez said they used the fact that their roommate tested positive for COVID-19 to be excused from class, even though they had recently recovered from COVID-19 themself and was not worried about getting sick.

Martinez said they used the exposure as an opportunity to “recuperate” for their mental health, as there were still online options available.

“I saw an opportunity and I took it for my own well-being. It wasn’t necessarily to be precautious because I knew I wasn’t going to expose everyone,” Martinez said. “When my friends found out they were like, ‘I’m going to say I had an exposure because I see you.’ ”

Martinez noted this may create a “domino effect” of many students skipping the same class at once.

ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert said only 50 students attended one of his classes this week in a lecture hall meant for 500.

Campus media studies lecturer Matthew Berry noted attendance has been around 40-60% this semester, compared to 80-90% in previous semesters. Berry added that attendance in his classes is optional due to the omicron variant.

According to Berry, this attendance rate is detrimental to academic performance. He noted the average score on one of his classes’ midterms was 67.5%, even though the exam was structurally identical to previous semesters where the lowest midterm average was 78%.

“I simply hate seeing so many students do poorly on exams and struggle to master material I know they would have an easier time grasping with regular attendance,” Berry said in an email. “If the choice is between either making course content simpler or instituting policies that will help students master difficult concepts so that they can succeed academically and in their careers, then I opt for the latter.”

Berry acknowledged, however, that it is often difficult for students to regularly attend every class. To accommodate students who miss class, Berry uploads his lecture slides to bCourses and includes more lecture content on each slide. He also offers to meet with students over Zoom to discuss class concepts.

Weichert noted students who skip class may still be learning the content by watching recorded lectures. He added that rather than mandating attendance, instructors should seek to understand why students are less willing to come to class in person and address those issues.

“The way students digest course content has shifted greatly,” Weichert said in the email. “Forcing them to sit through an unengaging lecture isn’t going to change how much course content they absorb. This is potentially a question that instructors don’t want to face, but it’s a question that has to be asked.”

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila.