Planning for Disruption

What do you do when there’s a disruption — illness, inclement weather, public health emergency — and you have to adjust your plan?  Plan for disruption!

Montclair State University has long sought to support students and their instructors when illness or other life events cause unanticipated absences from regular attendance. These strategies, supported by the Dean of Students (DOS), remain useful and in place as we respond to students requiring absences or needing more time to complete tasks because of quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19.

University procedures

  • As a general rule, if students find themselves in situations that prevent class attendance, they can seek support from the Dean of Students (DOS).
  • In the case of COVID-19, students, like employees and all people who come to campus, must complete Hawk Check on each day that they attend class. If answers to the health screening suggest a possibility of COVID-19, the student will be directed to stay home from campus and will be contacted by a University Health Center (UHC) staff member who will conduct a health assessment and provide direction to students.
    • If you believe a student who is symptomatic or recently exposed is not appropriately completing Hawk Check you can send a message to Administrators who monitor that account will alert the UHC.
  • If a student is determined by a UHC staff member to need to be quarantined or isolated, UHC will notify the DOS; in turn, the DOS will contact all of the student’s professors, with details on the time of absence and a request to support students in their academic continuity.  It will take several days for the DOS to contact professors as UHC completes its processes, so instructors are advised to accept students’ reports that their self-evaluation via Hawk Check indicates staying at home is required. 
    • Faculty can require students to forward the initial UHC email advising self-quarantine. This is evidence that students have completed Hawk Check and received an initial advisory to stay home.
  • Do not assume that students who tell you that someone in their household has COVID-19 or is at risk will necessarily be directed to stay home.  Often, that is not the case.  In any event, these sorts of individually-determined decisions are in the hands of the UHC staff.

What to do when a student cannot attend class

Rather than putting oneself in the position of evaluating the legitimacy of any student’s situation, instructors should direct students to Hawk Check with relation to immediate medical concerns, and call or email the staff at the DOS for all other issues that might be raised as part of an appeal to be exempt from attending class.  Faculty should not attempt to assess the validity of students’ requests for absence, nor provide health advice.

Instructors have options for how to support students’ academic continuity.  What choice is right for each class is very dependent on discipline, instructor pedagogy, and course design.  Instructors have a great deal of autonomy in deciding how best to support student success and academic continuity. 

With that said, demonstrating empathy while being clear about your expectations is important.  Much like the classic “praise sandwich” approach to offering feedback on student work — positive, criticism, positive –, we recommend an empathy sandwich.  That is, start with understanding and compassion, then provide direction on the specifics of what you will provide and what you expect, and close with a positive, resilience-focused message. 

For example, “I am sorry to hear that you will not be able to attend the class for the next 5 days. Health permitting, I recommend that you keep up with the due dates and activities provided in Canvas and that you closely review the class notes [recorded video] I post. Please also keep in touch with your peer group to learn what they experienced and learned in class as I don’t manage to cover everything in my notes. I wish you well and have confidence you’ll be able to catch up and persevere with your studies. Please feel free to be in touch with me by email or attend my Zoom Student Hours; also consider an appointment at the University’s tutoring center, CAST, if you are having trouble with any of the material. Best, Prof. X.”

Assessment and evaluation (grading)

As instructors, our job is to evaluate students on their achievement of the learning objectives of our courses.  All the structures we develop — absentee policies, requirements for collaboration and meeting deadlines, etc., — are designed to support student learning of the course objectives.  Similarly, our assessments are designed to further learning and evaluate learning. Thus, the extent to which students demonstrate fulfillment of course learning objectives, regardless of their exact achievement of the individual elements of our courses, is what matters Strong learning objectives and assessments enable us to fulfill our responsibilities as educators, and over-reliance on grading calculators and point systems may undercut our higher purpose. Use your judgment to be equitable, flexible, and focused on the high-level goals you have for learning in your course.

Communication matters

Be strategic with developing the tone of your communication to support academic continuity as you may be a student’s first point of contact. That is, your communication can be compassionate and foster a rigorous academic experience.  An email from a faculty can support academic continuity or it can, unintentionally, be received by students as uncaring or dismissive of their situation.

What to do about missed classes?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. If you have an attendance policy, use the “University Excused Absence” option in Canvas to indicate a DOS excused absence for the days students are absent.
  2. Require students to consult with a University tutor at CAST. CAST academic coaches can help students figure out what they need to do to keep up. They can assist students in reading your syllabus, notes, and expectations. To require tutoring, go to the Navigate platform via NEST and “Issue an alert.” Select “Tutoring needed.” This will effectively create a case that a tutor will handle directly, ensuring that you receive an update from the tutor by scrolling down your Navigate homepage to see status updates on the cases you’ve opened.
  3. Post in-class materials on Canvas.  This is potentially useful to all students, and certainly useful to students who are absent.  Materials might include:
    • Summaries of the class experience.  Tip: Instructors don’t need to write these; individual students can be assigned the task of note-taking, posting notes on a Canvas page
    • Instructor notes, presentation materials, and other hand-outs
  4. If your classes tend to be hands-on, activity-based classes, develop alternative assignments that students can complete alone, without being in class. Your guide is this: how can students achieve similar learning outcomes when they cannot attend class?  For example, if students are working collaboratively on a problem set or answering discussion questions, the alternative assignment would be to complete these activities solo. Spend some time now thinking of useful, purposeful alternatives, to avoid last-minute busywork assignments.
  5. If your classes include collaborative elements that require interacting with others, consider assigning students to virtually attend the Center for Academic Success and Tutoring (CAST), the Center for Writing Excellence (CWE), or even to collaborate with a family member or friend.
  6. Consider allowing students with DOS excused absences to attend your class via Zoom.  The caveat is that their Zoom attendance will be as a viewer of what you present, and will not be interactive as few instructors will be teaching in enhanced rooms, and teaching in a HawkLIVE approach requires practice and preparation that most instructors will not be able to obtain. But how?
    • Create a Zoom meeting, inviting affected students to the meeting space.
    • When you go to class, set up your laptop and turn on your Zoom.
    • Your student will enter the Zoom room.
    • Teach!  Focus on what you normally would do, and your student can listen and absorb information that you present, and hear at least what you say when you are positioned near the podium.
  7. Consider recording your classes and sharing these recordings with students with excused absences.  How?
    • Create a Zoom meeting.
    • When you go to class, set up your laptop and start your Zoom.
    • Hit record (!).
    • At the end of class, hit stop.
    • When your recording is sent to you, arrange to send it to your affected students.
  8. Provide students with extensions.
  9. For office hours (often renamed “student hours”), include a Zoom option.

How can I help?

  • Make a seating chart. Or, better yet, enlist your students’ help in making one.  Ask students to sit in the same seat every time they attend class. You will find that most students choose to do it anyway.  Capture that seating arrangement in a chart, with full names included. (If you want help, search classroom, lecture, or lab seating chart template to find a chart to get you started.) Put the chart on Canvas and let your students know it’s there. If a contact tracer asks anyone who they sit near, they can use the chart to provide fast answers.
  • Follow all the rules and explain to students why you do so.  Why do you do HawkCheck every day? Why do you work hard to avoid infection even if you’re not at-risk and are double vaccinated and boosted? Why did you boost? Instructors are more than disciplinary experts; they are also leaders.

What not to do

  • Don’t change the modality of your course.  While some students may request a change, and you may be tempted, modality is not up to faculty discretion.  If you have specific concerns about your class, consult your chair.  Experience has taught us that instructors may be pressured to change modalities.  Resist the pressure! Simply say, “No, the Zoom is just for those with excused absences, and is a less effective way for you to learn in this course.”
  • Don’t discuss absent students with other students.  Health information is private.
  • Don’t ask students about their vaccination status.
  • Don’t attempt to figure out who should quarantine or isolate.  The UHC staff handles all contact tracing and decision-making regarding health protocols.

What if my HawkCheck indicates that I need to stay home?

  • Stay home. A staff person from Occupational Health will call you and provide health guidance.
  • Devise a plan. You can: teach class via Zoom, find a substitute, and develop an alternative plan that enables students to move along in the course through asynchronous activities.  This alternative plan might include a reading, video, or engagement activity.
  • Email your chair and communicate your plan. Your chair may have suggestions and further guidance.

More questions?  See Teaching FAQs.