Sick Because I’m Stressed, Stressed Because I’m Sick—How Stuyvesant Copes With Illness

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 13, Volume 109

By Clara Shapiro 

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It begins as a little tickle in the sinuses. Then come the sore throat, the runny nose, and the coughing—harbingers of the upcoming period of bedridden infirmity. From their sickbeds, feverish Stuyvesant students break out their recovery arsenals. For physical ailments, they take all the standard prescriptions—tea, Benadryl, sleep, and chicken soup. But, even as the symptoms subside, students returning to school must still make their academic recoveries, for which chicken soup does nothing.

“I took three days off in the middle of the week, and that’s when a lot of the lessons are taught,” junior Tashfia Hasan said. “I was really stressed out about catching up [and] getting people to actually send me what they learned in class, but everyone’s busy, so sometimes they couldn’t send me the notes for that day.”

Freshman Ethan Kirschner shared Hasan’s experience. “Coming back to school was extremely difficult because each day goes off the prior day. So, once you missed [one day], it was like the domino effect. So, it [was] difficult to catch up,” he said. “I felt I was a little stressed, but I think it was more important to focus on recovery, because if I worried too much about school, there was no way I was [going to] get better.”

This rationale is legitimized by the Guidance Department. “It has been scientifically proven in various studies that stress has a direct impact on wellness,” Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Casey Pedrick said. “When you are stressed, your immune system can’t fight off things. Oftentimes, stress affects your sleep, which then defeats your immune system. [This] makes you [want to] eat fewer items or more of the bad items, so that gets you more compromised. And then, unfortunately, you add Stuyvesant into the mix, and it means you’re probably going to be stressed.”

Guidance counselor Paul Goldsman sees this relationship magnified in his students. “I think one of the reasons why students get sick is that they’re afraid to miss school,” he said.

Echoing Pedrick’s and Goldsman’s claims, senior Hao Tang said, “It’s easiest for me to get sick if I don’t have enough sleep.” She added, “I know people talk about catching up and things, but personally, I don’t really think there’s that much.”

For students making both their physical and academic recoveries, Pedrick believes that the Stuyvesant faculty provides a strong support network. “For the time that students are out, I think we have very empathetic staff who are very willing to help students stay on track when they’re dealing with illness,” she said.

To many students, the attitude of their teachers is tolerant, a degree more tepid than empathetic. Hasan said, “My teachers understood, but no teacher really has the time to go out of their way to make sure you definitely know what’s happening. I think it’s your responsibility to get through it.” For most students and teachers, the consensus is that students are obligated to compensate for their own sick days.

“The responsibility rests with the student. However, it's important for the teacher to be flexible. Let students know that their health is the [number one] priority. Get better, then think about making up work,” said social studies teacher David Hanna in an e-mail interview. He adds that with the advent of technology, it is easier than ever for students to compensate for their absences. “Google Classroom is a great tool for keeping everybody on task,” he said. Regarding his own sick days, Hanna added, “I also assign relevant in-class writing in lesson notebooks, and share this with the substitute teacher.”

The neo-Ludditism of many teachers can be frustrating for many sick students. “I wish teachers would post the lessons online if they don’t already do that,” Kirschner said.

Emphasizing the value of resources like Google Classroom and the internet, Pedrick added, “It’s always wonderful when there’s a teacher who has everything online so then it’s easy for the student to access from wherever they are healing.”

Yet sometimes, the panacea for physical and emotional maladies is a complete hiatus, a break from the sickness-causing stress of school. “I think that breaks are necessary. If you really feel like you should take a day off, you should. I’ve seen people pushing it. Crazy.” Tang remarked.

The guidance department validates this advice. “Sometimes students are experiencing a sort of illness where the best thing for them is to take a little break from everything,” Pedrick said. “You need to take a break from all the school stuff and just focus on getting better.”

Despite teachers’ support for sick students, a cohort of coughing overachievers believes that illness is no excuse for absence from school. “I think [students] should go to school, because otherwise they’ll fall so far behind. And, all they’re gonna be doing is sniffling. It’s a common cold. I don’t think it really matters,” freshman Leah D’Silva said.

For many, this attitude of martyrdom is driven by the fear of getting a zero on a missed math or science test, math and science being the departments notorious for not offering make-ups. An anonymous math teacher explained the rationale of her department over email: “In the past, I allowed students to take make up tests in case of absence. But, last year I had a horrible experience. It seemed the students were abusing this accommodation. At one point, I had 15 absences from three different classes. All of the students claimed that they had some health issue (stomach ache, headache, etc.). It became very hard for me to separate the legitimate cases from the others. After lengthy discussions with other teachers, I decided that this year I will not be giving make-up tests. Instead, I will drop the worst test grade for each student. I feel that it would reduce the stress for those students who happen to be really sick, because one grade is dropped, so they can stay home and recover,” she said.

Goldsman, who serves as a bridge between teachers and students, believes that certain cases require collaboration among the administration, the faculty, and the student. “Extenuating circumstances do arise, and that’s why if there is a situation, like a family emergency or a prolonged illness, then perhaps the teacher and the assistant principal as well as the guidance counselor can decide the fairest way of approaching the situation,” he said.

In the Darwinian struggle that is life at Stuyvesant, many students fear that they will be deemed the weakest in the survival of the fittest if they miss school. And while Stuyvesant does expect students to take the initiative to make up for what they’ve missed, students can take comfort knowing that teachers will be reasonable as they return to the jungle.