Two weeks ago, The University announced that instead of a traditional spring break we will only have two days off in March. While I understand the logic behind this decision, I find it incredibly hypocritical given how much the University appears to care about the mental health of its students. Over the past few weeks, I have received countless emails from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Office of Health Education (WesWell) with subject lines like “Listening & Supportive Drop In Spaces,” “Soul & Tell Supportive Space” and “Fostering Intuitive Eating for Mental Health.” From these emails alone, it seems that the University wants to improve the mental wellbeing of its students. However, in light of such a short spring break, is this concern genuine or simply performative?
If the University truly cares about its students’ mental health, only giving us two days off class to recharge in the middle of a global pandemic is hardly the way to show it. Let’s state the obvious: Students are more exhausted and anxious than ever before. While following the COVID-19 health guidelines is essential, it takes a toll. This semester the days feel longer and more arduous. The sense of collective anxiety is palpable, teeming in the air like a cloud of mosquitoes. What’s more, students complain of Zoom exhaustion after taking several hours of online class a day. Multiple studies have found that Zoom conversations are far more emotionally taxing than in-person conversations, because it is hard to interpret people’s non-verbal cues through a computer screen.
“[A] prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing,” Julia Sklar of National Geographic said. “The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.”
The phenomenon of burnout is all too real during any normal semester, and during a global pandemic it is inevitable. Based on the emails I’ve received over the past couple of weeks, it seems like the University knows this, yet is unwilling to take any concrete action to protect students’ long term mental health. Perhaps to make up for the lack of spring break, the University has extended winter break by two weeks. However, prolonging winter break will likely backfire. Giving students two months of winter break and then expecting us to work from February all the way through May with only two days off is simply unreasonable. If the University sticks to the plan outlined by the administration, students will feel increasingly overwhelmed and susceptible to burnout. This decision will likely also impact professors, who, like students, need time to draft lesson plans and recover from the stress of the semester.
In an all-campus email on Oct. 5th, President Michael Roth ’78 justified the University’s no-travel, two-day spring break as a way to ensure there is no need for a post-break quarantine period. While maintaining public health measures is vital, the University’s decision on spring break is shortsighted. The University could give students a week off in March and require us to stay on campus. One of the reasons the University has been able to keep COVID-19 cases so low over the past two months is because students have not been reckless. The vast majority of students have willingly adhered to the health guidelines, practiced social distancing, and received testing twice a week. If the University truly cares about the mental wellness of its students, it needs to put more trust in us to make the right decisions for the health of our community. Extending winter break and sending emails about the virtues of meditation and healthy eating will do nothing to curb the exhaustion many of us will face in the spring. Now is the time for the University to take concrete action to protect the mental wellbeing of their students.