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Supporting Students Who Miss Coursework Due to Illness

Information for Instructors and Students

Illness can interfere with student learning, and this page contains information and guidance about how to respond to such challenges. The CTLO can consult with instructors and TAs about course design choices that provide flexibility for students navigating illness. We encourage instructors with specific questions about how to support sick students to reach out to the undergraduate or graduate deans' offices for guidance about individual situations. These offices work closely with students as they navigate illness and other barriers to learning.

  • Students who miss required class meetings or need extra time to complete assignments due to illness should communicate their situation directly with instructors. There is no formal "sick excuse" process run by the Deans' Office or Student Wellness Services. Each instructor decides how to work with sick students within the context of their own course and the student's situation. In cases of bereavement, hospitalization, or serious illness, a dean may communicate directly with instructors on behalf of a student. Such communications aim to make sure that instructors are aware a student is dealing with a particularly difficult challenge. You can learn more about how the deans support struggling students on their website.
  • Caltech's honor code means that students should tell the truth about their reasons for missing classes and assigned work, and instructors should accept students' communications about absence due to illness as truthful and respond to them in good faith. If an instructor becomes concerned a student is not being truthful, they should share that concern with the Board of Control.
  • Accommodations for disability are handled by Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS). Typically, CASS is unable to provide support in cases of short-term illnesses unrelated to an existing disability. However, CASS can provide support and advocacy for students with temporary disabilities or medical conditions, which may include some physical injuries, concussions, some longer-term illnesses (i.e., more than a few weeks), pregnancy, and other medium- or longer-term conditions.
  • When a student does not complete course requirements by the end of the term, an instructor may choose to assign a grade of "E" to give a student more time to complete the work. A grade of "I" may be given only in cases of unexpected illness occurring near the end of the term. You may consult the catalog for more details about E and I grades. You can find additional information about I grades under "Medical Incompletes" on the Undergraduate Deans' webpage. Students have the ability to petition UASH for a late drop of a course; these requests are only approved when circumstances beyond a student's control prevented them from dropping the course by the posted deadline.

  • It can be challenging for an instructor to manage requests from sick students. As you work with students, keep in mind most sick students are doing their best to handle a difficult situation of feeling unwell while falling behind in a very demanding academic curriculum. Communicating to students that you care about both their well-being and their success in your course can help them navigate this difficult situation. One way to do this is to include a wellness policy in your syllabus that expresses your investment in students' well-being, discourages students from attending class when sick, and explains how students should contact you when dealing with illness. See an example on the CTLO syllabus template. Also see our guidance for students on this page, which you could borrow for your own course materials.
  • Unlimited flexibility can be difficult for students to manage, and due dates are often important for keeping students on track to succeed in a course. When a student misses due dates due to illness, consider working closely with them to create a revised set of due dates that allows the student to catch up and meet the course's learning goals. It's helpful to email this information to a student so there is a written record you can both refer to. This new agreement with the student can be revised if a student continues to navigate challenges.
  • Some instructors employ grading plans that allow students to drop a low grade (e.g., dropping the lowest quiz or problem set grade). This helps students mitigate the negative effects of short-term illness with minimal consultation with their instructors.
  • Consider what materials you can provide to students who miss class. These may include your own slides/notes, notes taken by a student, or a recording of a class meeting. Offering an opportunity to meet with you outside of normally scheduled office hours may also be helpful.
  • It is helpful for instructors to provide specific guidance to TAs about what kinds of communications and questions from students should be referred to the instructor of record for attention. These may include requests for extensions or explanations of missed work.
  • If you believe that a student has missed so much coursework that they will be unable to complete the course successfully, consider writing an email expressing that concern to the student and copying their advisor and one of the deans. This helps ensure the student is aware of your concern and that they have support in making decisions about how to respond to it.
  • If you become concerned that a student is in acute distress, make a referral to the CARE team.
  • It is helpful to have some familiarity with Student Wellness Services so you can make sure students are connected to Caltech's resources. You can find more information on their website on getting medical care and available services

  • When illness requires you to miss class meetings or causes you to fall behind in assigned coursework, reach out directly to your professor by email to explain your situation. Try to communicate with your instructors as soon as you are well enough to do so. Familiarize yourself with any policies relevant to your situation in the syllabus and make requests that align with that guidance. It will be up to your instructor to make decisions about how to respond to your requests.
    • Information to share when emailing an instructor: inform your instructor that you are dealing with illness; explain what you have missed and/or expect to miss; ask for specific kinds of support that would allow you to continue to succeed in the course. For example, if you would like an extension on a project that has several deadlines, explain which of the deadlines you would like to extend and for how long.
    • Information you can keep private: your exact medical diagnosis and symptoms
  • Keep your professor(s) updated as your situation evolves. Students encounter challenges when they go for long periods without attending class or communicating with instructors. Your professors can only support you when they understand the challenges you face.
  • The period after an illness can be very stressful as you work to catch up on missed work. Draw on Caltech's network of support if you find this stress difficult to manage. 
  • If you start to become concerned you cannot complete the required work for a course because of illness, reach out to a dean for support in navigating your situation. The longer you wait to seek help and guidance, the more difficult it may be to navigate the situation.
  • An E or I grade can be a useful way to make up work that was missed due to illness. However, if you cannot complete an extension before the start of the next term, the challenges of a previous term can have continuing, negative effects on future terms. Extensions are not advisable when a student has been behind on work for a large portion of a term. Work with your advisor and the deans to make sure your choices set you up for future success and avoid the possibility of becoming academically ineligible