Sick of School, Sick at School

How students navigate the dilemma of being sick during the academic year.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Your alarm clock sounds, and you immediately steal a hearty inhale of the crisp morning air, ready to start your day. Except there’s one issue—you can’t. Your sinuses are clogged, and you anxiously slap a hand to your forehead, only to be met with a sizzling inferno. You’re sick. In most cases, a common cold or a run-in with the flu aren’t particularly dire issues and are usually remedied by a warm blanket or an aspirin. Combined with the heavy demands of school, however, illness implicates more than just a peaceful break: the concerns over attendance, academic excellence, and the unspoken civic obligation to prevent the spreading of illness are a recipe for a convoluted quandary.

An anonymous health teacher pointed out factors that lead to students’ sickness in the first place. “Students are in very close quarters and oftentimes all the windows in a classroom are closed, which results in poor ventilation and a higher concentration of germs,” she said in an e-mail interview. “Stress from schoolwork can lower the immune system, allowing respiratory illnesses such as the cold, flu, and bronchitis to proliferate. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and worrying over test and project deadlines also add to a lowered immune system. The pollution and air quality in the Northeast contributes to bronchitis and asthma. Cigarettes, vaping, and secondhand smoke make all of these respiratory conditions worse.” Essentially, Stuyvesant is a perfect storm of risk factors for illness.

A year of remote learning and a lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly changed students’ perceptions of illness. Senior Eshaal Ubaid states that it has sharpened students’ sensitivity to the interpersonal facets of being sick and perhaps increased their willingness to stay home to reduce the risk of transmission. “We think of sickness more communally now,” Ubaid said in an e-mail interview. “It’s not an ‘oh I’m sick but I accept the consequences to my health by continuing to work,’ but more of an, ‘oh, I’m going to get other people sick and that creates a terrible cycle now, doesn’t it.’”

Despite the growing awareness of contagion, many students still choose to attend class when they are sick to prevent falling behind. “Nobody really wants to miss work, especially for AP classes, [where] whenever you miss even a day [...] you miss a lot,” senior Nicole Alaeva said. Moreover, the motives to attend school go beyond catching up on work. Alaeva noted that in some classes, attendance can play an important factor in one’s participation grade. 

Junior Brandon Waworuntu’s experience parallels Alaeva’s sentiments. “Some people just care more about their grades than their personal wellbeing and health,” he said.

Perhaps this is unique to Stuyvesant—the cultural attitude here treats attendance as obligatory, even amid extenuating circumstances. “At Stuyvesant, it's definitely a kind of thing where people love to compete with each other as to how much their life kinda sucks, especially when it comes to work,” senior Brandon Phillips said.

Physical symptoms of illness can often be debilitating, which prompts the question of whether attendance is worth the effort. Trying to bear the brunt of malady and simultaneously juggle academics proved to be fruitless in Ubaid’s experience. “I [...] remember nearly passing out in chorus while leading a warmup. It was my first time leading so I didn’t really want to stop in the middle, but that was the first sign of one of the worst sicknesses I’ve had thus far,” she said. “But I kept going through the school day and even played volleyball, realizing about an hour later that I definitely was burning up. School ended soon after but I ended up fainting for the first time in my life. [...] Terrible all around.”

  Phillips suggested that students are compelled to push through sickness to satisfy familial expectations. “How many times have we all heard the story of ‘I worked yadadada’ for you to be here and have this life?” he asked. 

Waworuntu’s experiences also reflect those parental obligations: “My friend had COVID, and he still came to school, and he said his parents made him,” Waworuntu said. “But it was for three days, and he said he felt fine, but I think it was asymptomatic and he still tested positive. [...] So, I thought that was messed up ’cause he probably gave it to a bunch of people.” As Waworuntu points out, trudging through an exhaustive school day while being sick is not just an individual choice, but also a decision that risks the health of fellow peers and faculty. 

From Phillips’s perspective, the decision to knowingly attend school while contagious is hard to defend. “They are making the selfish decision to do something for themselves, to push through, to not have to miss work, in exchange for spreading their illness, especially when they don’t wear a mask,” he said.

Ubaid echoed Phillips’s sentiment, contextualizing it in the circumstance of spreading it to her friends. “I wouldn’t really forgive myself if I got my friends [...] sick,” she said, “I guess it’s unavoidable to some extent with all of these different gnarly things going around, but I’d still rather not worsen anybody else’s life.”

But what is the solution? It seems to be an unsolvable dilemma—one that either risks the consequence of becoming a super-spreader of pathogens or risks falling short on one’s academic track record due to an uncontrollable situation.

Alaeva suggests that if sick students do choose to attend school, they should take some precautions to minimize the chances of contagion. “Before the pandemic, I'd never seen people wearing masks, but then after, they definitely come in useful whenever anyone is, you know, sick with a cold or anything,” she said. “They can just put on a mask, and it definitely stops or reduces the rate at which they infect other people.”

The anonymous health teacher also highlighted several other mitigation precautions. She noted that students could open windows in classrooms to increase ventilation, cover their faces when they sneeze, and prioritize receiving proper sleep and nutrition.

Though we all dread body aches, chills, and clogged sinuses, sickness will remain a steady fact of life. If one does find themself  with a fever and contemplating the impossible puzzle of school attendance, Ubaid puts it like this: “Please rest. It’s better for everyone. Only you can take care of yourself at the end of the day.”