The Environment of Illness at Hopkins
During her first game of the season, Varsity Girls Soccer captain, Zoe Kim ’20, tore her ACL.
Tied to the bed after surgery, still drowsy from the anesthesia and pain medication, she frantically called her classmates, hoping to catch up on a day’s worth of classes she missed. Although she would be bed-bound for the next eight days with nothing but her ice machine and a bloody knee, she was still stressed about every math assignment and history reading she had missed.
The pressure to power through sickness is nothing new to our generation. When Assistant Field Hockey Coach Wendy Parente ’75 recounted her time on The Hill she stated, “I felt like I had to push through [illness].” Parente believes the stigma of pushing through illness existed at the time, but not to the extent that it prevails today. “The word ‘stress’ wasn’t around during my time,” she says, “I never felt like I was that far behind.”
In the 1970s, students had the same classes every day. If a student missed a class, they simply took the day off to rest and sleep. They did not frantically email their teachers to ask for an extension the night before an assignment was due or request a last-minute test reschedule. Math Teacher Michael Gold ’10 felt similarly: “today there is an immediacy to the communication between students and teachers. Before email, it was probably more okay to be sick because there was less of an expectation to have [everything] done the next day.”
With today's technology and the advanced use of email and tools like Google Classroom and the Hopkins website, the stress of students to be completely caught up on their work has grown.
In an anonymous online survey, 38 Hopkins students shared their feelings toward taking sick days. Even when they do take the day off, students feel that “there is no time to rest when [they] are sick, there is no time for you to sleep.” When asked how they recuperate from sick days, a student replied in the survey, “I don’t….I have to catch up on work.” Another student stated, “I hope and pray I can make up all of my homework.” Kim, replied, “I die. Then die some more. Then eventually cope with the fact that I will never catch up.” In the survey, students described days when they would lie in bed next to a pile of used tissues trying to catch up on their work as fast as possible. They often disregard the sleep and proper rest they needed to get better. Gold stated, “my expectation of students is not to come in having done all of the work if they are sick. I feel like this is an expectation the student have put on themselves.”
The time period in which students have come to school feeling ill ranges from three days to three weeks. “Absences at Hopkins are so hard to make up, and the added stress to our daily load of homework and commitments is very hard to manage,” said Mika Kendall ’20. She has been absent for a total of 22 days so far this year. Students still feel as though they can not miss a day of school because the repercussions are just too large.
Furthermore, teachers feel very passionately about the health of their students. “I want my students to know that the number one concern in the course is always their well being,” said Gold. But where does the discrepancy lie between what the teachers say and how students feel? When asked this question, Gold replied, “students possibly think it is a sign of weakness. They may be worried about how it appears to teachers and other students if they take the day off.” Dean of Students Lars Jorgensen ’82 wants students to “make the assumption that their teachers want to help [them] through” their absence.
Even so, Kim “felt very rushed to finish things” when she returned from her eight-day absence, “I ended up not turning in my best work,” she said. This is a relevant fear in the lives of many students on The Hill, “it can be difficult with our rigorous workload to stay up to date on assignments while also taking the time you need to rest,” replied a student to an anonymous survey. Another student stated, “literally nothing [will make me take the day off], I will come to school regardless of how I’m feeling.” The necessity to muscle through illness is found beyond the students at Hopkins. Biology teacher Dr. Kellie Cox stated, “I don’t miss any days, I just can’t. If I miss a day then five of my classes come to a halt.” Mr. Gold also commented, “If you are sick, you just made someone else’s day a lot busier. Teachers don’t want to cause a big turmoil for their colleagues.”
How can we help our community prioritize health? Many teachers agree that there is a problem. “Obviously we can improve,” said Cox, “if that is the feeling [that students think it is better to come to school sick than to miss a day of class], that means we are not doing it right. I think by definition we should be doing better.” As a community, we must open the channels of discussion to create an environment that allows students to value their health and well-being.