OPINION: How professors are making the flu outbreak worse

Posted on Feb 4 2019 - 5:50am by John Hydrisko

As many already know — be it from first or second hand experience — there’s a flu outbreak at Ole Miss. This isn’t especially surprising: influenza activity in the United States peaks in January, and the density of a university makes for a viral hotbed. And, because flu shots do not cover all strains of the flu, it’s still possible for an immunized person to get the flu. According to the CDC, people with the flu can spread it to others within six feet. What, then, would be a better site for contagion than a lecture hall?

Consider the case of a student who feels ill, suspects the flu and goes to see a doctor. At the end of the appointment, the doctor sends the student away armed with advice, prescriptions and — importantly — a doctor’s note. The doctor’s note is to make sure that the student does not feel the need to leave home while still contagious and give someone else the flu.

Now, many professors would accept a doctor’s note and excuse the student’s absence from lecture, as they should. The student would not be penalized for staying home by way of an attendance-grade deduction. The issue, however, is that there are still other incentives for the student to go class. By staying home, the student might not be able to sit for reading checks, quizzes, exams and other in-class assignments.

After contacting his or her professor, the student finds that — while attendance is excused — the student’s failure to sit for these in-class assignments is not. The professor tells him or her that a quiz is too small of an assignment to make-up or that an exam is too great of an assignment to ignore. And now, the student again finds himself or herself incentivized to go to class, which would impede his or her own recovery and jeopardize the health of each classmate.

Many readers will recognize the case of this student because it’s the case of so many. The flu outbreak at Ole Miss is an urgent matter of public health, and by not completely and totally excusing absences, professors are making it significantly worse.

I fear that many people reading this overestimate the effectiveness of modern medicine and are tempted to downplay the real harms of a flu outbreak. During the 2017-18 flu season, influenza killed an estimated 80,000 people in the United States, and that figure does not include thousands of other life-threatening cases that required hospitalization. There’s a tendency to assume that a university community is composed entirely of young, healthy and resilient people, but that assumption fails to consider those with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and the chronically ill, of which there are many in our community.

If you have the flu, stay home. If you have the flu but are worried about missing an in-class assignment, still stay home. And if you are a member of the Ole Miss faculty, reconsider your own policy toward excused absences. If an assignment is too large to ignore it, offer a make-up; if an assignment is too small to offer a make-up, ignore it. This is the best way for sick people to get healthy, and this is the only way for healthy people to stop getting sick.

John Hydrisko is a sophomore English and Philosophy major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.