USC ought to create an inclusive standardized absence policy

Earlier in the semester, the School of Cinematic Arts quickly responded to a controversial revision to its attendance policy within the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen and Television that would not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences, with each absence after the first two decreasing a student’s grade by 10%. The department later clarified the policy to allow for some exceptions, such as family emergencies, health issues or otherwise. 

When the coronavirus pandemic began to unravel in late February, Provost Charles Zukoski clarified that notes from medical providers were not required for students requesting absences during that period of time. Days later, the Instagram page “Overheard University” published an alleged quote from a USC professor that said, “Only documented medical illnesses count for absences. I hear people are worried about the coronavirus and I don’t care. The only reason I want to hear for why you can’t come to class to turn in your paper on Thursday is that you were hit by a bus while reading about the virus spreading.” 

Regardless of whether this professor was serious, in light of complaints toward SCA’s revisions of its attendance policy, discussions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and absences, it is imperative that the University not only revisit its absence policy guidelines for upcoming semesters but also consider centralizing and clarifying its current policies.

The only efforts of centralization are a brief mention in the Dornsife Teaching Assistant Handbook that encourages professors to remind students of the importance of regular attendance. Furthermore, Student Health has a page clarifying that it does not provide written medical excuses for short-term absences.

Students’ physical and mental health can be prioritized by offering clear guidelines to faculty, which may help remove barriers for students who are struggling with their health. 

This is not an opportunity for the University to create lasting change in modern education but an opportunity to catch up to many of its other peers and maintain inclusivity at the forefront of student consideration.

Many other universities, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Monmouth College, UCLA and Stanford University maintain centralized web pages regarding class attendance and absence policies. 

Monmouth College in Illinois divides absences into approved, excused and unexcused absences and offers faculty members the opportunity to set their own standards. UCLA allows professors to establish attendance as an academic requirement and Stanford encourages students to contact their faculty to resolve attendance issues. 

Although these attendance policies are not particularly far-reaching, they are still centralized and clear for both students and instructors. Attendance accommodations, according to Stanford, “provide students the flexibility to address life circumstances while maintaining a responsible approach to their academic responsibilities.” 

The way these policies are put forward is also important, as Stanford’s messaging demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of students along with inclusivity and openness.

SCA’s screenwriting division clarifies its formerly controversial policy to include absence exceptions for religious holidays and DSP accommodations, while also clarifying that students can get instructor approval for some accommodations.

Students should still be expected to personally inform professors or teaching assistants as soon as they can if they expect to miss a class. Most professors and teaching assistants are completely understanding of students’ needs. Oftentimes all it takes is an email to sort out an issue of attendance, but regardless, the University must create a clear, centralized and standardized attendance policy that is inclusive of physical health, mental health, religious holidays and other extenuating non-academic circumstances.

During this outbreak, it is important that USC consider well-being and inclusivity. This clarification and opportunity is the messaging that must be put forth by the University and allow USC to take on a vision of solidarity.