I saw a bunch of students today during my office hours (~15-20 out of a class of 96). Then around noon I went downhill quick, and now I'm sporting a fever over 100 F.

I don't know necessarily what I have, but it seems reasonable to assume it was already there when I had close interaction with the students this morning.

Would you email students, notifying them? Would you wait until you went to the doctor (which won't happen until tomorrow, if I go)? If you emailed them, how/what would you say. Note, I also don't know exactly who all I saw, so I was going to send a class email.

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    I'm not a lawyer, but I'd make sure that there are no legal ramifications to offering up yourself as an excuse for a student getting sick. I know that's not what you are intending. But just be careful, people can be really manipulative sometimes.
    – SH7890
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 4:49
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    @SH7890: not everything is litigious. There's a difference between saying a) "Dear class, I am sick" b) "I am sick and I might have been infectious when I saw some of you at office hours today". The former seems harmless. Avoid clarifying or elaborating on what sickness, when they got it etc. c) Unless it's suspected to be something highly contagious and dangerous, like meningitis, measles etc., in which case there will be a policy to follow.
    – smci
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 19:26
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    Warning: this question was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. The answers may no longer be relevant as they do not include common practices and standard safety precautions in the "after-disease" era. Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 8:16

5 Answers 5


I would send out an email, but I would recommend caution and measure in writing it, so as not to cause undue panic.

Mention exactly what happened, along the lines of what you wrote here. Just state facts, and urge that anybody who starts developing symptoms to seek medical attention.

I should mention that I am one of the "immunocompromised" people mentioned in the other answers. Since full lecture notes were posted online for each lecture, I asked students who were contagious with something to please exercise caution, because I really couldn't afford to get sick.

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    That's sort of what I thought to do, but my fiance thought it was weird hence asking to a larger forum of other academics :)
    – J M
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 3:52
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    @JM Uh, well, I'm an academic and I'd consider it weird too sending an email, but probably it's a matter of culture. For instance, we had a flu wave here during the last couple of months and there was always someone falling sick around, one doesn't care too much. Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:09
  • I didn’t necessarily mean that we would all agree. More that I was looking for perspectives from other people in the same field. Jobs have different ideas/norms, so thought I’d “ask other academics” for their perspectives
    – J M
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 12:15

Either you infected them, or you didn't. Sending an e-mail about it will not change that (enough time has passed that telling them to wash their hands now will make no difference).

Therefore, it only makes sense to send an e-mail if it turns out to be something where early treatment can make a big difference, or where ignoring it can do harm. (IIRC, this year's flu is an especially bad one, and students might be tempted to dismiss it as just a cold. It's good to remind people that the flu kills and that they need someone to check in on them every few hours.)

Technically, an early warning might also let them avoid people until they are sure they aren't infectious, but in practice that is unlikely to happen as "I was in the same room as someone with fever earlier" probably won't be accepted as a valid reason to skip class...

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    Sorry, but I have to downvote this one - that last point is much more important than your response suggests. It's not about skipping class, it's about skipping that visit to a sick family member who might be seriously endangered by exposure to infection.
    – G_B
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:44
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    Fair enough, I guess that depends on your circumstances. Where I live, it's almost impossible to avoid daily exposure to varieties of the common cold. If I were to get an e-mail from every feverish person I was in proximity of, I'd just be deluged under daily emails - there's no useful behavioral response I could have to that.
    – nengel
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 11:09
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    Upvoted - illness is a fact of life and prior warning is unlikely to change outcomes. "Someone two degrees of separation away may be immunocompromised" is technically possible in the same way as "if I leave my house I may get hit by a car" - the risk is sufficiently small and uncontrollable that special attempts to mitigate complicate more than they help. If it turns out that OP is the patient zero of something especially dangerous, the story would be different. In this case I would expect your healthcare providers to have contingency plans and communicate with local authorities etc.
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 11:51
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    I normally do not make a habit of emailing students if I get sick (unless it is to cancel class). I only considered it because: 1) it came on so fast and strong 2) if it is the flu, I certainly would want to know if someone I had just sat face to face with was sick with it (but maybe that is a minority opinion)
    – J M
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 12:19
  • @nengel - Just curious, why you wrote this answer (an hour after I posted mine). Could you clarify how it's different from mine? Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 13:55

If it turns out to be something serious that requires treatment, yes. Also, if it's the flu, yes. But if it's a garden variety virus, no. There are so many bugs on campus, students are exposed quite often, and your bug is just one among many.

However, if you shook hands with someone, or sneezed on someone, then notify the individual.


Out of fifteen to twenty students, the chances are pretty high that at least one of them has friends or family undergoing chemotherapy.

Exposure to infection can be very dangerous to chemo patients, since many chemo treatments drastically weaken the immune system. When my friends were going through chemo, it was understood that we wouldn't visit them if we were feeling even mildly ill. People can also be immunocompromised for other reasons, with similar consequences.

By letting your students know about your illness, you make it easier for them to protect vulnerable loved ones.

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    The chances are also high, in fact higher, that each of those students spent time with other students who could be developing something already... So, do students make sure they would do the same? I have students who come to class and say "sorry I'm sick but came anyway"...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:43
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    @SolarMike that's part of the problem - in far too many places, academic and work culture encourage people to feel that they should come in sick, when it's better for everybody if they don't. Our response to that should be to model good behaviour rather than replicating bad behaviour.
    – G_B
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:50
  • Yes, many managers frown on people being sick - a tendency of worshipping the God Profit...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 8:54
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    Even though your concern is laudable, I think that anyone who works or studies in a university is aware of the fact that they will come in contact with tens or even hundreds of people every day, and that many of them can be sick. If someone has friends or families who are, for one reason or another, immunodepressed, they will have to take this into account anyway. Just to make an example, when I have a measurement lab session, I have some 50-100 students closely sitting together at the benches, and I usually move from bench to bench sitting among the students. How many of them can be sick? Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 11:29
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    @MassimoOrtolano "Many of my students don't wash their hands, so what is the point in me washing my hands?"
    – G_B
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 13:20
  1. Make the decision after you see a doctor, and

  2. Base the decision on whether there is an effective treatment available.

In other words, if it turns out that you have influenza, where early treatment (even before symptoms appear) can make a strong difference in outcome, then email. If it turns out that you have a cold, which will last a week if you treat it and seven days if you don't, then just let it go.

I actually just experienced this from both the warnee and warner position, though luckily not with students. A day after my parents left our house after the holiday, my mother called to say that she had been diagnosed with influenza A (despite having had the flu shot). When my toddler spiked a fever the day after that, I took it more seriously than I might have otherwise (we'd also all had the vaccine); it turned out my child also tested positive for influenza A, and the whole family was put on a prophylactic dose of antiviral medication. By that point I was also symptomatic, and accordingly informed colleagues with whom I'd had contact. Fortunately I'd already been keeping my distance from them before I was symptomatic, due to the previous notice, and none of them were affected. And thanks to our prompt treatment, no one else in our household came down with the flu, and my symptoms only lasted a few days.

On the other hand, colds around here are absolutely inescapable, and along with most of the folks around me I pretty much assume that anyone I come in contact with could be contagious between September and May. I'd be somewhat baffled to receive an email "warning" me that someone had come down with one.

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