Sick notes create a barrier to access to education

U of T should implement an internal verification system for medical absences

It is inevitable that students will eventually need to decide if they are too sick to show up for an exam, or whether they are well enough to wait in the doctor’s office for a sick note.

Many students may be in favour of a lenient system that does not require sick notes. Such a system would, however, be harmful. Students would be able to evade consequences for procrastination and poor time management, hence worsening their performance if the system allows it.

However, the current sick note system creates a barrier to access to education. In the process of obtaining sick notes, students face economic and geographic barriers, such as lack of time or money.

It is unethical to require students to wait for hours at the doctor’s office and pay the cost of procurement — all for a medical note that proves eligibility for accommodation. These conditions may cause students to forgo acquiring a sick note entirely, and opt to take exams or attend lectures while sick. This puts their fellow students and professors at risk for illness.

Students obtaining sick notes also cause “significant administrative burden” to our health care system, according to Carleton University Professor of Economics Frances Woolley in a Globe and Mail article. Writing notes, instead of tending to patients, uses up physicians’ valuable time and increases wait times in clinics.

Sick notes justify academic relief, extensions, and deferrals. They are safeguards put in place to discourage students from falsifying their health condition and taking advantage of the system to buy more time to study for exams or assignments. However, academic justification need not be deflected onto our health care system — because it is not a medical issue. It is an academic one. Doctors should not be the enforcers of student behaviour.

In 2009, during the H1N1 crisis, the University of Alberta waived the requirement of sick notes altogether as a temporary relief process during the crisis. According to registrar Gerry Kendal, who spoke to The Charlatan in 2010, the university did not find that its new policy would be a “major problem” if continued permanently.

Kendal addressed the risk of a lenient system by saying that, “we count fairly heavily on student integrity and we have general trust [in] our students,” in the same interview. A student cannot be required to produce a sick note to defer an exam or request an extension for term work. In its place, a student may fill out a Statutory Declaration of illness form. The same goes for the University of Calgary and Queen’s University, which both rely on a student’s self-declaration of illness.

If U of T is not ready to enter into a full trusting relationship with its students, there are alternatives. Keeping a record of deferrals and excused term work could be helpful in weeding out “chronic deferrers,” according to Woolley. Only requiring those who tend to take advantage of the system to produce medical documentation can lessen the burden on our health care system. It also ensures that students who are actually ill are able to get the relief and accommodation they need.

Nonetheless, the widespread practice of requiring medical notes needs to change. Student behaviour should be accounted for within the university system — and not just at the doctor’s clinic.

Ruth Frogoso is a fourth-year Art History, Classical Civilization, and Creative Expression and Society student at New College.

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