Palo Alto High School's News and Features Publication

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Testing Positive: Balancing health and academics while staying home sick


As Ashley Hung got out of bed on the first day of the second semester, she felt the harsh symptoms of COVID-19 throughout her body — she recalled her head pounding with a fever and a sharp rasp in her throat. Hung, a Palo Alto High School junior, moved herself to her desk, opening up her computer and Schoology. She ran through her list of assignments and messages from her teachers and began her work to catch up on the seemingly endless assignments typical of junior year.

“For me, I thought it was relatively easy to keep up with work because most of my teachers use Schoology a lot,” Hung said.

Through access to resources and support from teachers, Hung was able to stay up to date in her classes, but not all have been so lucky. 

According to COVID-19 data provided weekly by the Palo Alto Unified School District, there have been over 700 reported positive COVID-19 student cases in PAUSD since the beginning of 2022, causing many students to grapple with being sick and keeping up with school. Absenteeism rates shot up to 17% shortly after winter break, though rates have since been slowly decreasing, Principal Brent Kline told Verde. 

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The dilemma

Following the outbreak of the Omicron variant, exposure to COVID-19 has become an almost guaranteed risk for students at school. This possibility prompts many students to make a choice — stay home and risk falling behind in their academics, or go to school and potentially infect others.

According to data from a Verde opt-in survey of 237 people conducted from Jan. 26 to Jan. 31, 91% of Paly students feel that falling behind in classes is a reason for choosing to go to school while potentially having COVID-19.

“That [sick students went to school because of academic pressure] was certainly the case in the past, but if one good thing comes from living through this pandemic, I hope it will be changing that attitude.”

— Nicole Loomis, Paly science teacher

Hung said she recognizes the struggle students face when deciding to stay home, citing students’ academic commitments as a major contributing factor.

“I think it [the decision] is definitely worsened by Paly’s academic pressure and culture of academic success, and especially as juniors [because] we’re in one of the most rigorous years of high school,” Hung said. “Having to stay at home for a week, or more than a week, will also make you feel like you’re missing out on what you should be doing to help your academics.”

As someone who stayed home for several days with COVID-19 per the CDC guidelines, Hung criticized students who chose to attend school while showing symptoms of sickness.

“It was frustrating hearing that people were going to school when they had COVID,” Hung said. “It’s showing integrity and just being a good citizen by staying at home if you have COVID.”

Senior Victoria Liao said she agreed with Hung, emphasizing that coming to school while sick could have harmful consequences.

“I think it is incredibly irresponsible because not only are you putting students and teachers at risk, you are also putting their families at risk and you don’t know who is in their family … so you don’t know who you are actually hurting,” Liao said.

As Wellness Outreach Worker Whitney Aquino stated, the issue of students attending school while sick due to academic pressure is a historically prevalent problem at Paly. 

“Everyone has a responsibility when a student is staying at home because they’re sick.”

— Ashley Hung, junior

“I think [sick students going to school because of academic pressure] is a valid concern, considering in previous years, some students would come to school no matter how sick they were to avoid falling behind,” Aquino said.

While Liao admitted that such a problem did exist in earlier years, she believed conditions have improved over the course of the pandemic.  

“In the past, before COVID, a lot of kids would come to school even if they weren’t feeling well just out of fear of falling behind,” Liao said. “I still feel that, but I feel like people are a lot more understanding now.”

Science teacher Nicole Loomis said she acknowledges this long-standing behavior among students and anticipates a change in these practices after the pandemic.

“That [sick students went to school because of academic pressure] was certainly the case in the past, but if one good thing comes from living through this pandemic, I hope it will be changing that attitude,” Loomis said. “Students and teachers should stay home if they are sick.”

Resources and teachers

When a student goes out sick, responsibility falls on the teacher to support them by publishing resources online to keep students updated. Kline said he feels that staff are adjusting well to the higher number of students out on sick leave and the obligations that come with it. 

“They [teachers] are being as accommodating as possible and … have been working on bringing more up-to-date material online for students to work on,” Kline said. “The accommodations are bringing greater flexibility and teachers are bringing some of their learning from last year into the mix so that students don’t miss as much material.”

Though many students out sick receive accommodations, Hung urged for more accountability on both sides with students and teachers to support students. 

“Everyone has a responsibility when a student is staying at home because they’re sick,” Hung said. “Making sure that teachers are utilizing Schoology as much as they can and also making sure that the students themselves are reaching out to their teachers would be helpful.”

Loomis stresses the important role that teachers play to keep students up to date in classes and prevent them from falling behind when they are sick. 

“Teachers can adapt their lessons to provide options for students who are missing class to keep up, using Schoology,” Loomis said. “Or they can call students into PRIME when they return to help them catch up on what they missed.”

“I hope that taking care of yourself when you are sick and in need of rest becomes the norm, rather than having to ‘power through.’”

— Whitney Aquino, Paly Wellness outreach worker

When teachers have to miss class due to illness, they need a temporary replacement — but, as Loomis stated, this is complicated by a lack of available substitutes.  

“There is a sub shortage so many days teachers have been asked to cover for other teachers during their prep periods,” Loomis said.

Staying home sick

“I think it really differs between different people and the teachers they have and their teaching styles,” Hung said. “I’ve heard that it was difficult for other people to catch up with their schoolwork and to stay on track from home.”

Not only could keeping up in classes be harsh, Hung said she felt being away from others took a toll on her mental health. 

“Definitely at times it felt lonely because I only really interacted with three other people,” Hung said. “Staying in contact with friends just through texting and FaceTiming and having just being able to keep myself occupied with school and reading for fun … made it easier.”

Aquino emphasized the importance of prioritizing yourself and your health when you’re out sick instead of placing other responsibilities or beliefs above rest. 

“My hope is that students who get sick are able to take the time away from school to focus on true rest and healing for themselves,” Aquino said. “I hope that taking care of yourself when you are sick and in need of rest becomes the norm, rather than having to ‘power through.’”