During the COVID-19 pandemic, students received online instruction and may have experienced more leniency regarding class attendance by being given the choice between synchronous or asynchronous courses. As U of T plans an in-person return, students — especially those with disabilities or time-consuming responsibilities like caregiving or jobs — may be wondering whether this attendance flexibility will remain. At the same time, many students may be missing the social interactions that in-person class attendance provides. Below, two contributors approach the issue of mandatory attendance from different angles.

Attendance should be optional but strongly encouraged 

It’s been a long 15 months of students sitting at their desk chairs, beds, and couches in different countries, provinces, and cities as they attempt to tackle the highs and lows of online learning. After a slew of lockdowns, shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and whatever other terms have been used to describe Ontario’s COVID-19 prevention efforts, students and faculty at the University of Toronto can finally begin to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of what has been a very long and tedious tunnel. This light, of course, is the opportunity to return to in-person classes in the safest way possible.

With a return to in-person learning comes a return to rather ‘normal’ class requirements, such as attendance. For many courses at the University of Toronto, syllabi continue to remind students of the importance of attendance by including it as a key part of the final course marks. Whether they simply have to show up or need to actively participate to get them, students are no strangers to the potential make-or-break value of attendance marks.

As students and faculty were forced to adapt to online learning almost overnight in March of 2020, the ‘attendance’ checkmark on syllabi and what exactly it signified in a virtual setting was made rather ambiguous — and for good reason. In a remote learning world, there isn’t much you can do if your internet breaks down right before or in the middle of class, or if you’re taking classes in the middle of the night on the other side of the world due to the time difference. In my own experience, some classes replaced strict expectations of attendance with encouragement to do what you can. Of course, don’t get me wrong: not everyone was let off the hook that easily.

As U of T sets its sights high with the preventative measures it is implementing for a safe, in-person return to campus for the fall of 2021, the ‘attendance’ aspect of courses lingers as an open-ended question. While attendance requirements are usually up to the discretion of instructors, U of T and its professors should strongly encourage class attendance.

By attending class, students are gaining much more than a mark; they get more complete and fulfilling experiences, both socially and academically. Not only does the experience of attending classes in real time — whether virtually or physically — normalize the learning element of the university experience, but, for a lack of better words, it’s also what students are paying for. Now that in-person classes may be returning, students should sit in a classroom and interact with their peers and instructors to make up for the time they spent watching pre-recorded lectures alone, behind a screen.

Attendance means so much more than simply the act of going to class; being mentally and physically present in class allows students to learn and grow alongside their peers, enabling them to hear different perspectives and ways of understanding various concepts. This type of collective learning environment can play a fundamental role in bettering students’ learning.

To state the obvious, attending classes on a regular basis allows students to stay on top of course material and gain clarity on assignments. It’s also a great way to interact with professors in the moment and in a more dynamic way than students would have the chance to do over email or Zoom.

Aside from the academic benefits, being in class allows students to make connections with their peers. This social interaction is something that has been sorely missed during the pandemic. The social element is lost when students decide to miss class and tell themselves that they will just watch the lecture recording later. By encouraging students to attend classes, professors can give them the opportunity to meet and speak with their peers, which may make the overwhelming, labyrinth-like environment of the university feel a little more manageable.

As Ontario, and the rest of Canada for that matter, continues to gradually crawl out of the dark months of the COVID-19 lockdowns, U of T and its professors should strongly encourage class attendance. After being deprived of the opportunity to meet and speak with new people for months in a normal university social setting, class attendance can provide students with a positive push in the right direction to creating a much-needed sense of community.

While the university should not force mandatory attendance on students, the hope is that the return to in-person learning will give students a positive reason to want to be in class beyond the need to acquire a satisfactory mandatory mark.

Mélina Lévesque graduated from U of T in June 2021 with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in political science and anthropology.

We must ensure equal access to education for all

According to a recent research, more than 11 per cent of students enrolled in a college or university in Canada and the United States have a disability; however, another study found the figure of those who self-identify as disabled to be higher. We know that pursuing higher education requires dismantling and dealing with everyday ableism and other equity barriers, especially to students with disabilities and responsibilities such as caregiving and part-time work. One example of ableism in higher education is required graded attendance.

The practice of including mandatory attendance excludes and erases the needs of students with disabilities or responsibilities and raises barriers to equal access and participation. Students who experience depressive episodes, anxiety disorders, and chronic illness, among other conditions, can experience dysfunction that prevents them from attending and participating in class.

Before COVID-19 hit, the only ways to excuse an absence were to get a doctor’s note or to register with the accessibility services offered at universities. However, there are barriers to access, and not every student can provide a doctor’s note or register for accommodations. In addition, some disabilities are dynamic and fluctuating; there is no way of predicting your capacity for any particular day. For example, a student may be able to attend their classes one day and participate fully, but the next, they might experience tremendous pain, anxiety, profound exhaustion, fatigue, and brain fog, which prevents them from participating altogether. As such, required attendance should never be implemented. 

Some faculty members equate absences with laziness or incompetence. I think one of the reasons for this attitude is some faculty’s distrust toward students concerning their absence. I have come across an article by an academic who does not seem to be able to differentiate between learning disabilities and mental health disabilities; the academic claims that students with accommodations are given an advantage rather than merely getting the support they need. 

This distrust prevents students from seeking the support they need due to fear of being perceived as lazy or unfit. As a student with psychiatric disabilities, I have had professors deny my academic accommodations even when vetted by Accessibility Services because they think it is ‘unfair’ toward students without disabilities. If such misconceptions and myths remain prevalent among academics, students may continue to refuse help, and their conditions may worsen. In addition, this suspicion and doubt can be taxing on students because there is no way of knowing how professors will discern their requests. 

A review done by the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability notes: “Faculty attitudes have been shown to be a key determinant of the sense of inclusion experienced by students with disabilities.” Hence, faculty can have a significant impact by implementing supportive policies, especially those regarding accessibility, accommodation, and in this case, attendance. 

Furthermore, attendance flexibility ensures a better educational experience for all students, even faculty and staff themselves. As mentioned in the book Ableism in Academia, recent scholarship recommends support services for students such as advice, guidance, and accessible technology. However, the book notes that “there is evidence for the idea that endemic ableism impregnates academia, in the unspoken assumption that staff are not disabled.” Faculty and staff with disabilities — particularly those with non-static disabilities — may still struggle with research deadlines, teaching, and committee meetings. 

Everyone, including students without disabilities, received instruction online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and professors became more lenient regarding attendance. With the possible return of in-person classes for the upcoming academic year, I support non-mandatory attendance to ensure equal access and education for not only students but also faculty and staff. I believe removing required attendance is one step toward achieving inclusive and accessible education.

Aida Alanzi is a fourth-year psychology and linguistics student at UTM.