If one looks around Berkeley High School, it’s easy to see that students are coming to school while ill. In most classrooms, you’ll hear at least a few coughs and sneezes, student voices scratchy with the beginnings of a cold or flu. Still, students sit in closely arranged desks and walk the crowded hallways. They work and study for long hours instead of resting and recovering. In a culture that emphasizes academic achievement over health, students can experience significant pressure to attend school while ill. However, attending school while sick poses a physical risk to the community and oneself, and heightens the emotional risk for burnout. As a community, we must deconstruct the harmful mentality that academic success must always come before public and personal health.
Studies have illuminated the relationship between COVID-19 and consequences for at-risk groups. As of 2021, 8.8 percent of Californians were diagnosed with asthma, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In moderate or severe cases, the condition leads to a significantly increased risk of hospitalization, being placed on a ventilator, or requiring intensive care if the person contracts COVID-19. Influenza A and B are also more likely to cause complications for various at-risk groups. This includes groups such as immunocompromised people, people with metabolic and blood disorders, and people with neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions. While an overachieving culture pushes for students to attend school and not fall behind, spreading illness can have serious consequences for people in at-risk groups.
The pressure of coming to school while sick isn’t just harmful to one’s physical health. It can be stressful and emotionally draining to go throughout the day while feeling ill. Peers of sick students may feel stress from potentially getting sick themselves.
The fear of falling behind in school is not unfounded. With multiple AP classes and many extracurriculars, a few missed days can translate to an overwhelming workload and many hours of catching up. Missing a lecture can translate to a missed point on a test. Teachers only have so much power when it comes to extra accommodations for sick students due to busy schedules and high student-to-teacher ratios. But when students show up to school despite a severe illness, they put others at risk, and slow their own recovery by not allowing rest.
Some teachers are certainly supporting students in catching up. Many offer office hours or extensions on late work. Others excuse certain assignments altogether and encourage the student to focus on current classwork. However, some provide inadequate support, and all teachers must be flexible and accommodating to students because compounded schoolwork can become impossible to fit into allotted days. The lack of flexibility and accommodation encourages students to remain in school when ill.
Teachers also experience pressure to come to school when mildly to moderately ill. They risk not being paid for the days they are absent if they exceed their 11 sick days, even if they have the flu or COVID-19.
The blame for spreading illness shouldn’t be entirely on sick students. Sometimes, students feel symptomatic but are still able to function in school, even if it means infecting others. Our school’s culture and society as a whole puts too much pressure and value on academic achievement, regardless of whether it jeopardizes the well-being of students.
Missing a few days of school will likely have a benign impact in the long run, and forcing students to come to school when ill, without a chance at recovery, is not a productive solution. It just leads to a sick and stressed out student body.