View Bill 21-22-04

Senate Bill 21-22-04

Bill ID: 21-22-04
Name: Proposal to Promote Mental Health and Equity in the Excused Absence Policy
Proposed: 08/11/2021
Sponsor: Senator M Pease, Undergraduate Student & Dr. John Cumings, Associate Professor
Proposal: Student mental health is a major concern that needs to be treated with targeted interventions and with the same seriousness as physical health; however, the current excused absence policy — Policy V-100(G) — prioritizes physical health and promotes a culture where students feel they cannot receive respite from overwhelming coursework, stress, and other mental health concerns without severe academic penalties. This policy, which does not name mental health reasons as an excused absence nor designate days for students to take off for mental health purposes, forces students to choose between their mental health and the stress of missing class and potentially facing scrutiny from their instructor. As written, this policy thus devalues mental health (in comparison to physical health) and may contributes to the high rates of student burnout, anxiety, and depression we have seen in recent years (Lumpkin, 2021; Schlozman, et al., 2017; Xiao et al., 2017).

The expectation for students, while sick, to spend time and, depending on their insurance, money to obtain a physician documentation when they otherwise could be recovering at home runs counter to the university's goal of promoting wellness. Moreover, requiring doctor-signed notes present a race, disability, and class equity issue, placing students who are already in vulnerable circumstances under additional superfluous scrutiny. For students of marginalized backgrounds, they may not have the same access, financial means, transportation, or other factors necessary to go to a physician on short notice, potentially placing them in the precarious position (especially so in the context of a pandemic) of deciding between saving their grade or attending class while ill (Clevenger, 2018; Newby, 2019). Additionally, given that under the current policy, a course instructor "may" (and is not required) to request medical documentation, this leaves open the potential for implicit biases against minoritized students to result in discriminatory variance in the application of the documentation requirement. Taken together, these issues constitute a barrier to equal access to educational opportunities.

No universities, to our knowledge, have excused absence policies that explicitly address these two serious concerns impacting the day-to-day experiences of students. Thus, the University of Maryland has the opportunity to be a leader in empathetic and equitable excused absence policy. With the ongoing exacerbating impacts of COVID-19 of student mental health concerns and social inequality (Browning et al., 2021; Copeland et al., 2021; Laurencin & McClinton, 2021; Salerno et al., 2020; van de Motter & Allen, 2021), urgent attention to these issue is needed to allow all students more opportunities to thrive and succeed within our university community.

Amendments to V-100(G) UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND POLICY ON EXCUSED ABSENCE could meaningfully promote wellness in our community, relieving some of the pressure placed on students and addressing barriers to taking needed time off without severe academic consequences.

Specifically, we are interested in changes that address:

1. The lack of acknowledgment of mental health in V-100(G).I;
2. The lack of options for excused absences based for mental health purposes in V-100(G).II;
3. The requirement in V-100(G).II.2.a for physician-certified notes for more than one absence or for absences coinciding with major grading events; and
4. Any other changes the Senate may deem appropriate to create a more empathetic and equitable excused absence policy.

Mental health policy amendments could take the form of designated self-certified wellness days (in addition to the current policy's one absence per course per semester for medically-necessitated absences) or specific university-wide days off built into the calendar. The latter option was attempted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio State University during the pandemic (Ye, 2021). Another potential model could be found in House Bill 461 from this year's Maryland General Assembly session and House Bill 81 from this year's Utah State Legislature session, both of which proposed to designate mental health absences for K-12 students as excused without the need for physician documentation (Washington, 2021; Winder et al., 2021). Additionally, Montgomery County Public Schools added mental health to its excused absence policy this year, while Prince George's County Public Schools allows its students to take one excused mental health day per semester (St. George, 2021).

There are a number of ways to implement amendments to the doctor's note requirements. For example, the Office of Undergraduate Studies provided a policy exemption in Spring 2021 suspending the obligation for certain forms of documentation due to COVID-19: "Students are not obligated to provide documentation from the University Health Center, from their physician, or from another source to verify their inability to perform course activities as per expectations, or missed due dates for assignments." (Undergraduate Studies, 2021). One approach could, thus, be removing the requirement for a note from a medical professional, which the State of Utah recently enacted for their K-12 students (Robertson et al., 2021), or providing other ways for students to certify their excused absence that do not require potentially costly doctor's visits (Newby, 2019).

Ohio State University's Faculty Council (2019) published a guidance document addressing both concerns by recommending that faculty 1) excuse mental health absences and also 2) do not require documentation to be excused due to such requirements being unduly burdensome. Individual instructors at OSU still retain the authority to excuse absences, however this guidance document reflects options that could be codified into policy to address the major points of this proposal.


Status: Under Review
Under Review By: Academic Procedures & Standards (APAS) Committee
Received: 08/26/2021
Actions: The APAS Committee will begin its review when it receives the formal charge from the SEC.


Reviewed By: Senate Executive Committee (SEC)
Received: 08/19/2021
Decision Date: 08/26/2021
Decision: The SEC voted to charge the APAS Committee with review of the proposal.
Next Step: APAS Committee Review
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