Brightmont Academy Blog

When Illness Impacts Academics

The school system is designed to push students out of their comfort zones and expose them to new challenges. We know this causes some students stress and presume that through hard work, focus, and sheer determination, they will overcome all barriers to learn requisite material and earn their diploma. However, some students are also burdened with health issues that require frequent doctor visits, hospitalizations, and other absences that interrupt the educational process.


Whenever health issues impact attendance, the most important thing to do is talk with your counselor about options. No one wants to penalize a student academically for being ill, and there are some processes already in place to allow extensions of the typical number of absences allowed in a semester, waiver or reduction of assignments, or other accommodations that can ensure the student is graded on what they are learning and not symptoms of a disease or condition. A 504 plan that allows accommodations can be developed even for a short-term problem. For example, a student with a broken ankle may be granted the accommodation of having an additional 5 minutes for passing time to avoid accruing a bunch of tardies while trying to maneuver crowded hallways on crutches.


It’s always the best advice to work out the appropriate solution directly with your counselor when health issues arise. Sometimes, the situation impacting the student is not so clear, so consider these other ways that illness can impact academic performance and attendance.


Illness-Related Absences


The two most prevalent chronic conditions in school-age children are allergies and asthma, both of which can impact attendance. Since the symptoms wax and wane over time and as the student is exposed to different exacerbating factors, it can be difficult to predict when the student will suffer from an attack. This causes an additional bit of stress as the student worries whether or not they will be able to participate in key classroom events like group presentations, which they may have practiced for extensively, only to be absent on the performance day.


In addition, unexpected diseases like mononucleosis, commonly called mono or the kissing disease because it transfers so rapidly among high school students, can strike otherwise healthy teenagers and cause extreme fatigue when no such health issues existed previously. This type of illness can keep a student from attending school for weeks at a time.


Whether the condition constantly interrupts a student’s ability to attend by having them out every few days or completely removes them from school for a significant amount of time, the cumulative effect is that students often fall further and further behind if they remain responsible for making up all of the assignments given during their absences.


Attending While Fatigued


When students miss a lot of school, the concern of falling too far behind may push them to return to school at the earliest possible moment, but this can have a consequence as well. Students who take on more than they are ready to jeopardize their complete recovery, and may find that even though they are at school, they remain too exhausted to benefit from the instruction that is provided.


It is also important to remain in communication with the counselor and school nurse to understand all of the impact of shortening a medical leave. Certain benefits, such as in-home or hospital-based tutoring, only become an option once the student has missed a defined number of days. Returning to school even for a partial day can reset the clock, and reduce the options available to help the student manage his or her coursework while ill.


Physical Consequences of a School Setting


In addition to the fatigue the student is likely to experience by returning to school before completely healed, they become exposed to the larger school population and all of the germs other students bring to school. With a compromised immune system, the student risks prolonging their illness or contracting an additional strain. Unfortunately, having one illness doesn’t make the student exempt from catching another, and some doctors recommend protracted absences or transferring to a smaller environment to protect the health of the student.


Illness Impacts Behavior Also


We consider absences to be the most common negative consequence that students with illnesses must endure, but some conditions also have undesirable behaviors as symptoms. Irritability is a noted side effect of many medications, and many families fail to recognize that complications from an illness or injury could also contribute to a disciplinary action.


Other Family Members


A student may be perfectly healthy physically, but can still be significantly impacted by the illness of a parent or other family member. Stress, fatigue, and increased absences become symptoms for the caregiver as well as siblings and other family members when they frequently attend doctor appointments alongside the patient and must also cope with the strain an illness places on the entire family.  Many healthy children may need to take on additional responsibilities within the family and forfeit their own parental support to help care for a family member with a critical health issue.


Taking Time to Heal


In some cases, the health situation becomes too serious and accommodations alone can’t make school doable. Health always comes over education, even if it means delaying graduation or sitting out a term until the student’s health improves. Such extreme measures need not necessarily accompany the health condition, and students may opt to attend school 12 months a year and/or enroll in school that awards credits based on mastery-based learning to accrue credits more quickly during the time they are healthy enough for instruction. Online programs can provide instruction to students who are bedridden, and taking college level classes will enable students to earn high school credits at a much quicker pace. Talk to an education professional to discover the many options beyond traditional classroom instruction that can create opportunities for learning, regardless of health and the ability to attend consistently.

Picture of Ruth Wilson
Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson is the Founder of Brightmont Academy and Huma Education Services. Throughout her career, Ruth has been dedicated to improving the education, health, and aspirations of students. She is a certified principal and a board certified educational therapist. She has led multiple teams and served on several non-profit boards, including the Washington Branch of International Dyslexia Association. Ruth continually seeks to expand and share her educational expertise through postgraduate coursework, collaborations with other educators, and consulting and public speaking events.


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