One afternoon last November, a dozen Carleton University professors and instructors gathered for a meeting organized by the university’s educational development centre to discuss the challenges of dealing with sick notes, the documentation that students are sometimes required to produce to verify an illness and justify extensions on assignments or exam deferrals.
Kim Hellemans, undergraduate chair in the department of neuroscience, chose to attend after becoming exasperated by the workload of juggling student requests for deferrals due to illness and other reasons. “I lose track of who has written what [exam or assignment] and when,” she said to her colleagues, many of whom nodded knowingly. “I fear what’s happening at Carleton is that it’s too easy to defer an exam.”
While some departments may set their own rules, there is no school-wide policy at Carleton on deferrals for sick students – outside of the final exam period, during which students must apply in writing to the registrar’s office in order to officially defer an exam, noted Maureen Murdock, director of Carleton’s health and counselling services, who attended the meeting. “The physician’s note is just saying this person was sick on this date,” she said. “There’s no policy on campus that says you have to accept it.”
Ms. Murdock, who tracks university sick note policies across North America, said some school administrators are moving to a no-note policy, while others are coming up with alternative arrangements, including the use of so-called student self-declaration forms. More common, however, are the use of verification-of-illness forms which require a physician’s assessment of the degree and dates of “incapacitation” – from severe to moderate to slight to negligible.
Sick notes can be a huge burden to the people writing them, said Ms. Murdock. The group of physicians who provide medical services at Carleton wrote 2,350 sick notes for students, staff and faculty in a 12-month period in 2013-14, she said. “It’s a waste of our resources to have students come to the clinics just for sick notes,” she said, and “it increases the wait for students who want to be seen because they are ill.” If it was up to her, Ms. Murdock said she would abandon the need for medical notes altogether. “When I call my employer and say I’m sick, I don’t have to bring a note,” she pointed out.
That’s the same thinking that led Jane Collins, nurse manager in the student health centre at Saint Mary’s University, to stop writing sick notes in 2013 (with exceptions for mental health issues and chronic conditions). In an interview with CBC News at the time, she argued that medical clinics should be taken out of the equation when it comes to academic accommodations. The website of the health centre at University of Alberta, meanwhile, outlines its preference that students stay at home to recover from acute illnesses rather than waiting for a note in a doctor’s office. The physicians will still write notes when medical attention is required, but the university policy emphasizes that students should first contact instructors, by phone or email, to request an absence or extension. (Note, or no note, it’s at the instructor’s discretion to accept the request).
In an effort to smooth the sometimes uncomfortable process of note negotiations between professors and students, at Queen’s University students who visit the university webpage on sick notes are encouraged to print out a letter outlining the school’s policy for their instructors, along with an optional self-declaration of illness form used to declare one’s own non-serious illnesses in writing. It’s a system based on trust and instructors are free to accept the form or not.
Carleton film studies professor Marc Furstenau came to the sick notes meeting feeling irked after receiving a growing number of apparently fake medical notes from students. Dr. Furstenau had become accustomed to negotiating extensions directly with students rather than asking for notes. He did, however, include the faculty’s sick note policy on every syllabus; it stated in bold uppercase text that, in film studies, late assignments are not accepted unless there is medical documentation. He believed, until recently, that he was obliged to include it, just like policies that inform students about accommodations for religious reasons and for disabilities. Even so, Dr. Furstenau admits he always took out the part about needing to produce an obituary or a copy of the death certificate in the case of death of a close relative. “I thought, I’m not going to ask them that!”
Another professor in the room said she had a much stricter policy around documentation. If a student said their cat had dental surgery, she said she’d ask to see the vet bill; if the student said they went to their grandmother’s funeral, she’d ask for the obituary and a boarding pass if travel was required. A photo of the student’s prescription bottle could be used to prove the dates of illness as well.
The discussion turned to the ways that professors might be able to differentiate between the genuinely ill students and those who might be taking advantage of the system to unfairly buy themselves extra time. Dr. Furstenau shared a sick note strategy that had been adopted by some of his colleagues: designing courses for which only the best five out of seven assignments (or some percentage of quizzes) count towards the final grade. The first two times a student is ill, struck with a migraine or stressed out and misses a test, the zero gets tossed out – no note required. In the previous term he decided to test out another arrangement: he gave students no specific deadlines for the two course assignments, as long as they got them in by end of term.
“It allows me to say, ‘I don’t need to hear anything about your life, I don’t need any excuses from you,’” said Dr. Furstenau. In a class of 18 students, 17 of them submitted the assignments on or before the last day. One asked for an extension and accepted the penalty. “I think they realised that having had such latitude, there was really no excuse not to get them all in by the end of term.”
Colleague Dr. Hellemans seemed unconvinced. The issue “speaks to the culture at large, of accountability and entitlement and that’s what I think needs to change,” she said. “The current system is not working.”