On October 2, 2020, Father Mark Poorman sent an email to the UP community detailing the University's plans for the spring semester. This plan included allowing more students to reside on campus, a new COVID-19 testing system, as well as the announcement that the University would be forgoing a traditional spring break. The news of spring break being replaced by two two-day reading periods sparked outrage among the students. It made it hard to believe that the university truly cares about our mental well-being; how could they when they took away a break which many students would use to decompress halfway through the semester to reduce burnout?
As the spring semester has gone on, and the University continues to create its plan for the fall, many students are finding themselves worried about the status of a fall break. Personally, knowing that I don’t have a spring break to look forward to has been an adjustment, and I’m having to find new ways to avoid burning out, especially considering we still have half of the semester left. While I can appreciate the sentiment behind reading days, breaks such as spring and fall break are important to students and their well-being, and this is something the University should take into account as they continue forming their Fall 2021 plan.
While the decision to replace spring break with two smaller breaks is meant to reduce chances of COVID-19 exposure through travel, it was naïve of the University to think that students would not still travel or meet family members and friends outside of the UP community during these days. With no strict enforcement of who can be on campus or where students can go while off campus, it is hard to truly protect campus from possible COVID-19 exposure. Students are at risk of exposure every day, be it from a short trip to the grocery store, taking the bus to work, or even visiting with their off-campus friends. While small outings are different than traveling home via airplane, train, or bus, students are at risk for exposure to COVID-19 either way. On paper (or in this case in an email), having reading days instead of a week-long spring break to reduce possible COVID-19 exposure is a great idea, but it fails to recognize that there are more negatives to it than positives.
During a typical spring break, I find myself (as I’m sure many of my peers do as well) taking about three days to completely relax, not think about assignments, and give myself time to do things that I truly enjoy, without having the stress or guilt of not using that time to do schoolwork. I then use the remaining days to catch up on assignments, study for tests, and even to try to get ahead. Having a week-long break allows students the luxury of managing their time how they see fit, in order to rejuvenate and get a fresh start for the remainder of the semester once the break is over.
Reading days do not allow for this luxury. While professors are not meant to assign schoolwork for these days (many of whom have respected this rule), students still find themselves having to take care of assignments that are due later in the week, rather than being able to take the days to give themselves a mental break.
In the interview survey study “Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States” conducted in partnership by Texas A&M and Houston Methodist Hospital, 195 students were surveyed on the state of their mental health as a result of the pandemic. The study, conducted during the first few months of lockdown, found that “Of the 195 students (surveyed), 138 (71%) indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”. While the survey had a small sample size, its results are applicable to the population of college students in the United States.
Since the start of lockdown, students have found themselves facing new struggles, be it having to move out of their university dorms on days' notice, facing new or worsened financial hardship, learning to live in isolation, worrying about the health of their family and friends, etc. The weight of these issues and their effects highlights the importance of taking breaks.
In an article published by University College London on the importance of taking breaks, author Javier S. Bautista, PhD states that with hard work over long periods of time, anxiety and stress are heightened, and without necessary breaks people find themselves becoming restless. Bautista associates the five benefits of taking breaks with improved memory and health, boosted energy, performance, and creativity, as well as reduced stress. Students need breaks such as spring break, especially during these unprecedented times to unwind and check-in on their mental health.
While the intentions of the reading days may have been good, I fear it will negatively impact students during the semester. With heightened levels of stress and anxiety, it is harder to perform well in classes, and without a semester break there is less time to rest and catch up. I hope that as the University makes plans for the fall, they truly consider the effect that taking away a semester break may have on their student body.
Maja Strusinska-Thayer is a freshman biology student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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