Caitlin Egan made the decision to not return for the fall semester days before the 2021-22 academic year began. After a year of online learning, her mental health was negatively affected, pushing her to fill out the medical leave of absence form. 

A leave of absence occurs when the university grants an undergraduate student’s formal education to be paused due to a medical or personal concern that would prevent a student from completing a full semester or academic year. When COVID-19 became a major concern for some students and their return to campus, pandemic leave of absence also became an option. According to university Registrar Rodney Parks, 57 students in 2020 were granted a PLOA, and 25 have been granted so far in 2021. As for medical leave of absences, or MLOA, there were 74 in 2020 and 87 in 2021 so far. 

For Egan, pushing through with a MLOA was the result of her freshman year experience and being on a social hiatus in and out of the classroom. Though Elon returned to fully in-person learning this year, the effects from the pandemic are still present for her. 

“It was hard because I experienced Zoom fatigue,” Egan said. “I felt like I wasn’t properly learning from the screen. Last semester I just pushed it off. I just realized my grades weren’t where I wanted them to be and I could do a lot better if I took a break and regrouped.”

While applying for a MLOA has been an option available to students for years now, the incorporation of a PLOA was introduced to the university immediately before the fall 2020 academic year. According to Parks, for students who looked into withdrawing from school due to pandemic concerns, the university informed them of the PLOA option. 

“It’s always good for students to see new resources available to them,” Parks said.

Parks also said in-person learning has affected this year’s LOA numbers. 

“The number of pandemic leave of absence is going down as the campus returns much more to a normal state of processing,” Parks said. 

Results of a leave of absence

Students who are approved for a LOA still remain affiliated as an Elon student, allowing them access to course and housing registration, Elon resources such as their email and OnTrack and connection with some organizations on campus. According to the university’s LOA policy, a principal advantage of this academic pause allows students to take a break and later resume their studies efficiently. 

According to Assistant Dean of Students Whitney Gregory, some students who feel reluctant to take the LOA forget that they will still be enrolled as an Elon student. Gregory works closely with students who apply for a MLOA and said the university strives to help students reach their goals, even when they are physically not on campus. 

“I talk with so many students who are scared of taking a leave for a variety of reasons,” Gregory said. “The majority of the time we are able to find solutions and options where students can reach their goals while taking leave.”

Gregory said she’s also worked with students who tried to push past their medical and physical issues, which resulted in them doing poorly in classes and around campus. She recommends that students who feel they need a pause should take it. 

“I always want students to know that stepping back and focusing on their mental health is the most important thing they can do for themselves and for the long term of their academic success,” Gregory said. “If you feel like you’re struggling with your physical or mental health to the point where it’s not getting better and you can’t go on or it’s impeding your academics, talk with somebody because so much of the time we can find solutions.”

While she is on her leave, Egan said she is in the midst of completing Elon core credit requirements at her local community college and receiving work experience at a retail job. 

She also said this pause from the university will allow her to build a strong foundation in her physical and mental health when she returns for winter and spring semesters. 

“You should really keep your mental health in check,” Egan said. “I would encourage anybody to because it’s sorting through your thoughts. It’s so easy to get lost inside your head.” 

According to university Bursar Jay Harper, when a LOA is approved, tuition will be charged and refunded by the week. 

Other university leave of absences 

Compared to other universities, Gregory said Elon tries to look at each LOA case personally. In early August, Brown University entered a settlement agreement with the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District Rhode Island to ensure students with medical concerns or disabilities have equal access to educational programs. The Department of Justice found that between fall 2012 and spring 2017, dozens of students were denied readmission to Brown after taking a mental health-related medical leave, despite meeting  the requirements to return to school.

For Elon students, returning from a LOA related to medical reasons requires them to provide documentation with details of treatment and evaluations of the student’s readiness to resume university responsibilities. Once documents are received by the office of the Dean of Students, the process will continue with informing the registrar of enrollment. Those who are returning from a PLOA follow up with the university as well. If a student chooses not to return to Elon, they must complete the university withdrawal process. 

“Elon really looks at things on a case-by-case basis. We always have,” Gregory said. “We are different from other universities in trying to make the process as supportive and easy for students. You’ve got to use this kind of way to strengthen your health and engage in whatever treatment that’s recommended.”

As a result of Brown’s settlement, the university will revise its undergraduate leave policies and practices to be consistent with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, provide training on Title III of the ADA to all faculty and staff responsible for evaluating or making decisions about requests to take or return from leaves of absence and pay $684,000 to compensate the undergraduate students who were harmed. 

Moving forward with Elon’s LOA policy, Parks said the university is also looking into possibly offering a personal, educational LOA to work through any special cases where students may need to complete their education in a different way, like through a year-long internship project or study abroad experience.

“Part of the leave of absence is making sure that they stay connected,” Parks said. “We want them to be connected, let them know we’re here, check in on them, really let them understand that they’re still an Elon student.”