Vaccinated students risk failing courses over COVID-19 isolation

Updated: Oct 7

Despite the rise in both breakthrough COVID-19 cases and classroom absences due to its isolation protocols, Salisbury University has still not issued a standard university-wide policy to protect vaccinated students who miss classes following a positive COVID-19 test, threatening their academic standing and financial aid.


While professors are instructed to work with those students on implanting virtual accommodations during the mandated 10-day isolation period, faculty members are not explicitly required by SU to institute those measures. The absence of such a policy has already produced a variety of consequences across campus.


Having missed the first week of classes due to a hospital stay for preexisting health complications, junior Angel Dougherty-Taylor was already informed by the instructor of her English literature course, T. Ross Leasure, that virtual accommodations would not be offered regardless of an individual’s health this semester.


Dougherty-Taylor has now accrued five total absences after experiencing a breakthrough COVID-19 case and required isolation period, triggering the syllabus’ automatic failure policy.


Leasure said Dougherty-Taylor would still be permitted to continue in the course since one of the five missed classes was an exam, but she would still have to forfeit all points on the exam and could not miss another class for the remainder of the semester, according to an email from Leasure to Dougherty-Taylor.


In the email, Leasure advised Dougherty-Taylor continuing the course under these circumstances was “a gamble since the semester has only just begun … [while] the other option is to withdraw without penalty and register for another class next semester to fulfill the [general education] requirement at a time when [she will] be able to engage fully and continuously in the course [she] chooses, rather than starting off behind and being interrupted out of the gate.”


Despite the recommendation, Dougherty-Taylor said having to drop or fail multiple courses because of absence policies would pose a risk to her status as a full-time student, potentially jeopardizing her financial aid.


Dougherty-Taylor now faces the choice of either dropping the course and suffering potential long-term consequences or pushing forth in hopes of a perfect attendance record the remainder of the semester.


But she is not alone in these decisions.


Multiple students have already approached the university’s Student Government Association citing similar concerns regarding accommodations from SU faculty members during required isolation periods, said Carly Nascimbeni, the organization’s speaker of the senate.


All students who receive a positive COVID-19 test result, regardless of vaccination status, must return home or be moved into an isolation space on campus for 10 days while all campus access is restricted, including classrooms.


SU’s COVID-19 Students and Employees Quarantine and Isolation guide simply advises that “students who are in isolation will need to make arrangements with their instructor regarding class attendance and assignments.”


As a result of the vague recommendation, students are left in a standstill during the isolation period until further direction is provided from their professors, who then have discretion on how to proceed in each course and whether missed classes during isolation will contribute to the course’s absence policy for triggering potential failure.


Dougherty-Taylor, who is taking the literature course to fulfill a general education requirement, said she grew angry after several unsuccessful attempts to arrange accommodations with faculty members due to the lack of a universal policy.


“I definitely think all professors need to be held to a standard,” Dougherty-Taylor said. “Professors should be required to accommodate you for circumstances that you are unable to control.


“Regardless of whether a student contracts COVID-19 or has other medical issues, this goes far beyond [the pandemic].”


Dougherty-Taylor said although some professors have been more flexible in offering virtual accommodations, students who have complied with the university’s COVID-19 prevention mandates deserve better protection academically.


“I just hope that a policy is able to be created so that students don’t have to be in the situation that I’m in … because I followed all of SU’s protocols,” Dougherty-Taylor said. “I did everything they’ve told me to do, and I’m still the one suffering.”


Haley Taylor, another fully vaccinated student who suffered a breakthrough case of the virus, shared similar difficulties caused by professors’ individual discretion in accommodating isolated students.


For instance, Taylor said while some professors, such as Dr. Deeya Mitra, have uploaded lecture slides and notes online for students unable to attend in-person classes, others have struggled to bridge the gap virtually.


Professor Keethaponcalan Soosaipillai responded to Taylor’s email regarding her isolation that he was simply “not sure how to accommodate Covid-positive students but will not penalize [her for the time away from the classroom],” according to an email from Soosaipillai.


Taylor, who also serves as SGA vice president, said the absence of a standard university-wide protocol for professors to follow has led to both confusion and mixed responses in addressing missed time from the classroom.


“There’s a lot of variation over how each professor wants to handle [accommodations], and it’s been entirely placed on the professor on how to handle it,” Taylor said. “The professors do seem inclined to be as accommodating as they can be, but it seems like they haven’t been afforded the resources for how to handle it.”


Vaccinated students also hold the responsibility of reporting positive results from outside tests to Campus Heath, which Taylor believes poses a potential risk of underreporting and increased coronavirus transmission on campus over fear of not being accommodated by professors during the isolation period.


“I think students have a lot of anxiety about how being quarantined with [COVID-19] is going to disrupt their schoolwork because they understand how hard it is to get accommodated,” Taylor said.


SU Provost Karen Olmstead said in an email to Nascimbeni that "there are limits on the number of days that a student can miss and still be successful in a course, and faculty are in the best position to determine how many class meetings a student can miss and still be successful. Although many faculty members are trying to accommodate remote learning for students, it’s not possible in all courses given the different types of pedagogy and course requirements.”


Students who received a medical or religious exemption to the University System of Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate may also face a two-week ban from the classroom if determined to be a close contact, according to SU’s isolation guide. If an unvaccinated student tests positive for COVID-19, that individual would face a shorter isolation period of 10 days.


Fully vaccinated, asymptomatic students are not required to isolate if deemed a close contact but must receive and submit a negative COVID-19 test result to the university three to five days following the exposure, per the guide.


Dougherty-Taylor said a return to routine testing for all campus community members would be the most effective measure to limit future breakthrough cases and reduce fear of potential exposures, as well as offering online exams and lectures across disciplines to increase accessibility to the classroom during isolation.


Leasure said he did "not know what sort of accommodations could adequately compensate for not being present for class given that, theoretically, [Dougherty-Taylor] may have missed five of eight class meetings ... [and if] the academic integrity of a course is to be preserved and if the education of the student is paramount, then there are limits to the flexibility an instructor has to compensate for excessive absences, regardless of the reason."


Leasure said Dougherty-Taylor has taken the course's first exam and did not meet or schedule virtual arrangements with him outside of the classroom to review course material following the absences.


For more information on SU’s vaccination protocols or to view the latest university COVID-19 test results, visit https://www.salisbury.edu/coronavirus/testing-info.aspx.



By JAKOB TODD

News editor

Featured image courtesy of Salisbury University Public Relations Office.