The University of Maryland Senate is reviewing a new proposal aimed at promoting mental health and equity in the university’s excused absence policy.
The bill proposes changing mental health aspects of the excused absence policy and altering the requirement for students to turn in doctor-certified notes upon request when they miss more than one day of a class for physical health reasons.
Senator M Pease, a senior psychology major, and Dr. John Cumings, an associate professor in the materials science and engineering department, introduced the bill last month.
The proposal is a suggestion, and exact wording of any future policy changes would be decided by the Senate’s Academic Procedures & Standards Committee, Pease said. There is no timeline for how long the bill will be in the committee because another bill is being considered before it, Pease said.
Amendments to the current excused absence policy could include adding campuswide mental health days or self-certified wellness days in addition to the current policy’s one absence per course per semester, the proposal says.
“We’re often quite stressed, we have a lot on our plates, and mental health should be more at the forefront of the way that we navigate care within our community,” Pease said.
Under the current policy, students are allowed one self-signed excuse or a medical absence per course each semester. Beyond that instance, a student must provide documentation for all types of absences, including medical, if requested. There must also be timely notification given to instructors.
The bill claims the current policy — last amended in 2019 — “promotes a culture where students feel they cannot receive respite from overwhelming coursework, stress, and other mental health concerns without severe academic penalties.”
Plus, the doctor’s note provision “[presents] a race, disability, and class equity issue, placing students who are already in vulnerable circumstances under additional superfluous scrutiny,” according to the proposal.
Earlier this year, Cumings learned Montgomery County Public Schools decided to alter its attendance policy to allow parents to write excused absences for students for mental health reasons.
He found that this university does not have any similar mental health policies in place. A short while later, Senate Chair Ellen Williams introduced Cumings and Pease.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the University of Maryland to take the lead and to bring this clarity to our students,” Cumings said. “I think that other universities could end up using us as a role model, which would be great.”
Pease acknowledged that students could take advantage of a system with more self-signed notes but said the proposal is too beneficial to pass up.
“It is better for students to take advantage of a more inclusive policy than students to have a barrier to their education because of a less inclusive policy,” Pease said. “Students are adults, they are collaborators in the educational process. We are all part of a community and we all have, to an extent, a responsibility to care for one another.”
Nathan Blanken, the president of Active Minds, a mental health organization on campus, said “it kind of hurts my heart a little bit” to know about the challenges of getting mental health days excused.
“Just one day off from a stressful week is a huge difference compared to just going through the whole stressful week and having to wait till it’s over,” said Blanken, a sophomore computer science major.
Cumings added it is important for students to be able to help themselves if they are “stressed out or burned out or not going to be learning much anyway.”
“I do think there’s challenges in terms of the intellectual rigor that’s expected at a university at the college level,” Cumings said. “But also, we want our students to be healthy and to bring their whole selves to the class.”