Say you're teaching a class and a student shows symptoms of the common cold (cough, runny nose, etc.).

They might be contagious. Is it appropriate to ask them to leave?

  • 5
    For reference, if you have guests at your home and one of them shows symptoms of the common cold, how would you handle that situation? I suppose a difference would be that the student is paying to attend, so the comparison isn’t quite right. Mar 23 at 14:17
  • 11
    I think this heavily depends on the culture and thus, at the very least, on the country. @Aruralreader: " that the student is paying to attend" This also depends on the country. Mar 23 at 14:23
  • 15
    If you could be sure the student had an airborne infectious disease, I'd be inclined to say yes; but the student may have privileged knowledge the instructor doesn't (and shouldn't), e.g. that they have a known non-infectious condition such as an allergy which could explain the symptoms. Mar 23 at 14:27
  • 5
    I agree with @DanielHatton I had symptom of a common cold for 19 years now due to my allergy. While very mild most of the time, I have period where it is indistinguishable from a bad cold.
    – JackRed
    Mar 23 at 14:40
  • 3
    I think Covid has shown that contagious infection shouldn't be ignored because of standing on ceremony. It can make a disaster. Some other students may have weak immune problem and get scarified. additionally, some may have someone with weak immune system at home. Asking one sick student to be out is better that forcing all others to choose between their course/life. You can later help the absent student to learn the courses which hasn't attended to the class. I also agree with @Buffy that it is better that universities make some rules for this,since some lecturers might have a different idea.
    – m123
    Mar 23 at 22:16

4 Answers 4


In the UK, the guidance for young people attending education settings, including universities, is that people who have the symptoms you've described ("cough, runny nose, etc") should not be excluded as a matter of course.

"Individuals with mild symptoms such as runny nose, and headache who are otherwise well can continue to attend their setting.

Children and young people settings: tools and resources

If they have additional symptoms then they should be advised to stay off as a matter of course, and can be temporarily excluded in an educational sense (e.g. ordered not to attend) if they do so.

Individuals should not attend if they have a high temperature and are unwell.

Individuals who have a positive test result for COVID-19 should not attend the setting for 3 days after the day of the test.

[Individuals should not attend if they have] Flu (influenza) or influenza like illness.

  • 2
    "Cough" doesn't seem to be listed here.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 10:12
  • 3
    @Buffy - That would come under the heading of a "mild symptom". Unless they're coughing up blood or can't stop coughing, in which case they're "unwell".
    – Valorum
    Mar 24 at 11:21
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    Actually, I don't think so. Coughing spreads droplets, etc. Sneezing is worse, of course.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 11:28
  • 28
    This is depressing. Around March 2020, everyone agreed that one permanent change in society would be that people who had these kinds of symptoms would stay at home and not go to school/work - because (among other reasons) it was obvious that If people had done that from February 2020, many lives would have been saved. And then huge numbers of people died, more than anyone expected. But now people seem to have forgotten all that and believe that not even the simplest and easiest public health measures are worth taking.
    – toby544
    Mar 24 at 11:31
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    Coughing into the elbow is effective only if it is universally practiced at each instance. It requires actions. Masking is more passive and can protect others.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 13:45

Yes, it is appropriate unless you can have them mask and isolate somewhat from the others. Covid isn't gone yet and can have symptoms like those of a cold. But a cold can also be debilitating for some, especially those with any susceptibilities to other things.

Let them know, however, how you can bring them up to date for the missed lecture. Or have them contact you to obtain any needed information.

It is probably worth the effort to carry a few fresh N95 masks for such situations. It is probably also worth the effort for the university to have a published policy about this.

Edited to add: It probably isn't appropriate to "order them out" of the classroom. If they have evidence that the symptoms are not contagious then there is no need. But it is appropriate to ask them to leave or mask or take other precautions if they do, indeed, have a cold and are coughing or sneezing, possibly spreading infections. People need to take some responsibility for others around them.

If other students feel "at risk" from being around someone who might give them a disease then they might want to leave themselves. That is a bit harder to mitigate. And possibly more disruptive.

  • 7
    +1 for the policy from the university. While we are discussing about "asking" the student to leave and not forcing them, there's the possibility a student might feel like it is unfair and want to protest about the lecturer
    – JackRed
    Mar 23 at 14:56
  • 16
    And handling the request in as private a conversation as possible with the student would be appropriate.
    – Carol
    Mar 23 at 16:02
  • 2
    @Carol, agreed, though it might not be entirely possible.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 13:32
  • 1
    They may have a runny nose because they are allergic to pollen. They may cough because they smoke a lot. There are lots of possible reasons for cold-like symptoms and not all involve a contagious disease. "If they have evidence that the symptoms are not contagious" - will you ask them for a certificate from a doctor that they have asthma?
    – gaazkam
    Mar 26 at 8:08
  • "If they have evidence that the symptoms are not contagious" Do keep in mind that in some jurisdictions, you're not allowed to just ask about medical conditions. In those jurisdictions you'll need a very good reason. Being scared they might infect somebody probably is not a good enough reason to ask for such proof.
    – Dnomyar96
    Mar 26 at 15:18

MY lived experience as a teacher is that the boundary between appropriate and in appropriate is less about what you do and more about how you do it.

It is usually appropriate to express concerns for the welfare of a student and to suggest that going to see the nurse might be a really good ideal, and that they could catch up on anything that they missed rather than forcing themselves to struggle on.

It's usually inappropriate to order a student with a cold out in case they infect other students. Or you.

The way that you make the suggestion is everything.


Please be careful about singling out students based on perceived symptoms. Some students, for example, may have seasonal allergies that will manifest as cold-like symptoms (cough, runny nose, etc.) for several months in the spring and/or fall. Students may also have a persistent cough for other reasons, such as a previous illness, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or acid reflux. If you are concerned about a student's symptoms, make sure to raise the issue privately, and try to avoid an accusatory or annoyed tone until you have all the facts.

In addition, please be aware that it may not be practical for students who have small children to avoid attending class when they have a respiratory infection. For example, the first year that each of my children started going to day care they brought home a new cold every few weeks for six months. I'm sure these were contagious viruses, but it's not really practical to stay home for months on end to avoid spreading colds.

  • 5
    It is practical to mask, however, as is done in much of Asia in such circumstances and has been for a long time.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 13:31
  • 1
    @Buffy That is certainly true, and I think it's very reasonable to ask students who have a respiratory infection to mask. However, students who have seasonal allergies or other persistent conditions should not be expected to mask just because they are exhibiting symptoms.
    – Jim Belk
    Mar 24 at 13:36
  • Your answer describes colds. Your comment is about other things.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 13:38
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    @Buffy The first paragraph of my answer is about other things, and the second paragraph is about colds.
    – Jim Belk
    Mar 24 at 13:39
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    During the pandemic of Covid, some infected people just claimed to have allergy at the time of coughing in public. Many didn't like to believe that they got infected and consequently they persisted against others' advices. Some even were eager to go to public, not wearing mask,... because they see it as the acceptance of the infection.
    – m123
    Mar 24 at 15:21

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