I'm married to a pediatric oncologist / hematologist, so dinnertime conversation is often about when things go really really wrong. The good news about pediatric cancer is most kids now get better. But even in cases with good outcomes extended hospital stays are not uncommon, and relapses and new diagnoses do occur for college kids.
It is during these long hospital stays that kids are encouraged to push ahead with their lives as much as possible, and for people ages 5 to 22 this means being a student. The docs and the nurses and the social workers and the child life specialists want the kids to go about their lives as normally as is physically possible, they want them to keep up with their class work.
Nobody ever plans to get sick. We don't plan for extended absences for ourselves, and we don't plan for extended absences for our students.
Some students and some teachers are better at adapting on the fly. A student will figure out how to get the work that she is missing, a professor will make accommodations and find alternative routes to complete assignments.
When it comes to managing illness, long absence and education the successes tend to stand out. But these successes also blind us to the real story, and that is a story of variation. Some students can keep up with their work when ill and absent. Some teachers (at every level of education) figure out how to work with absent and ill students. Many students, however, are left with no ability to continue with their studies when confined to a hospital or home.
What we need to do is a couple of things:
First: Recognize that illness and long-term absences are not uncommon.
Think back to the classes that you have taught. How often do you have a student who needs to miss significant portions of class time for illness or family issues? Why are we surprised every year when this happens again?
Second: Design our courses with the flexibility and redundancy to accommodate students who may miss significant weeks on campus.
If we assume that some portion of our students are not be able to attend class, can we proactively create online and/or mobile materials that allow students to keep up? Can we extend our "flipped classroom" model of pre-recorded lectures and online formative assessments to other aspects of the course? Make sure that all of the class readings are available digitally? Have assignments turned in online? Build in opportunities for collaboration and communication that do not solely depend on face-to-face discussion?
The investments made to accommodate those students that might miss class will benefit all students. The key is to make these investments in a systematic and proactive manner.
If course design and development is framed as an issue of access as well as quality, can we recruit other campus resources to assist in course development?
What offices on campus are assigned to work with students that might fall ill or need to be absent from campus? Can relationships and alliances be formed with these colleagues around resilient course design?
Can we come up with some common standards, or an acceptable baseline, in which our courses are determined as ready to accommodate students who must leave campus for medical or personal issues?
Could the development of this sort of standard be utilized in our communications to potential students (and their parents), about the investments that are being made in learning?
Can we partner with our colleagues at local teaching and university affiliated hospitals to study the medical impact of course designs and technologies that allow patients to also continue as students?