Faculty respond to H1N1 with concern and a lesson in community

September 21, 2009

A third of the way into the fall semester, reports of H1N1 flu have continued to increase, according to Margaret Spear, director of University Health Services at Penn State. Easily spread among college-age students, the illness requires those who are sick to avoid public areas, such as work or class, and to stay away from people until they recover (self-isolate). To accomplish this many Penn State faculty, staff, students and peer tutors are responding in particularly helpful ways.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, as well as a letter from Provost Rod Erickson to faculty, point out the importance of self-isolation by anyone with flu symptoms in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. That’s hard medicine for some students to follow.

“Many students are afraid to miss a lab, lecture or exam,” said Jeremy Cohen, associate vice president for undergraduate education. “A colleague told me that when he paused in his lecture, the hall echoed with coughs and sniffling,” Cohen said. “On the very positive side, however, faculty and others are stepping up to the plate to address the public health issues that emerge when students believe that missing a class can threaten grades or future admission into graduate school or medical school, or can hurt their pocketbooks if they’re forced to drop a course. These are stressful considerations for students.”

"For most people the flu means a few unpleasant days. For the chronically ill, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, however, exposure to the virus can be more problematic and the decision to isolate has public health implications,” Spear said.

In response, faculty across the University are encouraging students to stay home when they’re ill by taking a few minutes of class time to stress the importance of self-isolation. Most are strictly following University policies that provide students with the right, whenever reasonable, to a make-up exam if they’re ill or out of class for other legitimate reasons, such as religious holidays or family emergencies. Similarly, policy precludes instructors from requiring a physician’s excuse.

“Relatively speaking, we’ve had only a few reports of faculty who don’t recognize the public health issues or who aren’t going the extra mile to alleviate student hesitation to miss an exam or class because of the flu,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, the few who continue to demand notes are impacting health care providers whose time could and should be better spent providing care rather than explaining to students why physicians' notes are not issued,” Spear said.

Responding to public health issues, academic departments and colleges have been finding ways to offer work online, to schedule make-up exams, to develop additional peer tutoring for students who miss class, to extend deadlines, and to create teaching moments that focus on the implications of individual health decisions to others in the community.

Penn State’s Sept. 17-18 U.S. Constitution Day celebration on the University Park campus, included an opportunity in front of the HUB for students to respond to the question, “Should students, faculty and staff be required to get H1N1 flu shots?” (Responses were nearly evenly divided.) The University has no plans to require immunization, “but aligned with our celebration of the Constitution, the question provided a way to encourage students to think about what it means to engage in social citizenship in the Penn State community. It is encouraging to see how many members of the community, faculty and students alike, take that citizenship seriously,” Cohen said.




(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 30, 2009