A “well-being break” sounds nice, right? The first thing that might come to mind is a chance to sleep in, catch up on some shows you’ve queued up on Netflix or finally put those sheet masks to good use. I was excited to hear of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents’ approval last December of two days off during the winter 2021 semester. However, I never planned on using two days off to recreate a spa experience at home. It was more of a relief to have some days off to catch up on class assignments. While a couple of days off throughout the semester isn’t ideal for anyone, calling them a “well-being break” misrepresents their effectiveness in giving students a chance to put the stress and demands of school on pause.
For many students, Spring Break is long enough to both catch-up or get ahead on schoolwork and to use some time off to relax. In an effort to minimize the transmission of COVID-19 from students traveling during the break and returning to campus with it, the University stripped the week-long break from the academic calendar this semester. In lieu of Spring Break, two days, Feb. 24 and Mar. 23 were marked off the calendars as class-free days for students.
In normal times, getting through the semester can be hard enough for students as is, especially those struggling with mental health problems or general stressors. But in the midst of a global pandemic, where the incidence of mental illness among college students has become even more severe, it is extremely unlikely that the two days of break during a more stressful semester is sufficient enough.
It wasn’t until a professor mentioned that a day off in the middle of the week was not synonymous with either a break or well-being when I reevaluated my perception of them. Thankfully, my professor made a point of stressing she would not be assigning work for the break so that we could actually use the time to focus on our well-being. Whether other faculty will follow the same line of thinking is doubtful.
Spring Break won’t cure someone’s mental illness, but it can at least provide enough time to focus on coping strategies and take a breather from stressors, especially if schoolwork is one of them. One day off isn’t enough time to catch your breath — not when midterms fall around the time of the first well-being break and big end-of-the-term projects begin ramping up around the second one. Those two days off are not a break, and they certainly will do little for one’s well-being.
Does the University’s administration deserve all the blame for the frustration students have with not having a Spring Break this semester? Not necessarily. In some ways, the administration’s decision to forgo the break in hopes of reducing the transmission of COVID-19 on-campus shows they’ve made progress in using their data to make informed decisions, which is something they’ve been highly criticized about since the beginning of the pandemic.
Looking at the issue in a vacuum, the decision makes sense. The fewer chances students have to travel and potentially contract the virus, the even fewer opportunities there are to spur a major outbreak on campus. However, when you look at the decision in conjunction with the other policies the University has implemented this semester, it looks like they have yet again failed to pay attention to the data.
For one thing, the University put in place new and stricter COVID-19 policies for this semester, including mandatory weekly testing to visit University buildings, the cancellation of housing contracts for undergraduate dorm residents and the encouragement of undergraduates to not return to campus at all. With so many students already staying home for the semester, a substitute for getting rid of Spring Break could’ve been stricter policies for those who decided to live on campus this semester, such as restricting travel during the break, requiring a mandatory quarantine for returning students if they do travel or following a similar plan as last semester where all classes are completely virtual after the break.
What getting rid of Spring Break does is punish students who are staying home, who would not have traveled during the break anyway and who are dealing with mental health issues. This decision comes at a price. Why did no one think to question the impact having no breaks the entire semester would have on students? Why did it take the advocacy of students and the Central Student Government to make the last-minute decision to add two days off in the first place?
The answers to those questions aren’t clear. It could be that the University doesn’t care about students’ mental well-being or it could be that they failed again to concentrate on the data. Either way, the reasoning behind the original decision to have no breaks was severely misguided.
The University should be much more concerned about students’ mental health and well-being as the name of the well-being breaks suggests. Mental health is a serious issue among college students. Michigan Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry has a page on their website dedicated to talking about the mental impact of COVID-19 on college students, and it raises attention to the fact that not only are college students more prone to higher rates of loneliness, anxiety and depression, but that the pandemic has actually increased those issues.
One of the department’s tips to college students is to take a break. The page says, “Step away from the news and from your coursework to do something you enjoy and that you find relaxing and rejuvenating.”
I’m hesitant to know whether a random day off in the middle of the week can even be considered a break. The University’s failure to consider the impact of getting rid of Spring Break reveals a lack of care for the data, even data the institution has produced itself. The nomenclature of the two days off this semester also suggests they have overestimated the positive impact they will have on students’ well-being.
Initially approving an academic calendar that had three and a half months of no time off for students seems absurd considering the abundance of data on the link between the COVID-19 pandemic and students’ mental health. The University can’t play the negligence card either — the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, Wolverine Wellness and the Recreational Sports facilities have all expanded their services to accommodate students’ need for wellness resources.
The University knew mental illness was an issue when they finalized this semester’s calendar. While I am grateful for those whose efforts made the well-being breaks possible, it is frustrating that it took students lobbying the University to get them on the calendar. A few weeks into the semester and I’m already stressed. I fear for my own mental health this semester, my fellow students’ mental health, especially those already struggling with mental illness, and the faculty who need a break too.
It puts into question what the University’s focus has been on these past few semesters. Unfortunately, as with the University’s slow start in taking the safety and well-being of students and faculty into account, it appears their focus is still not on the people keeping the University running.
Theodora Vorias can be reached at email@example.com.