Dear U-M, give me a break

Sunday, November 1, 2020 - 1:10pm

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Illustration by Leah Leszczynski

Half of my 2020 Spring Break was spent on the beach. The other half was spent watching the dizzying news coverage on the COVID-19 outbreak alongside the beginning of Trump’s failure to combat it. Though forever clouded by my grandparents’ fearful rush to return to their secluded Michigan farm for safety with the looming pandemic, I was lucky to have had a week of Florida sun in between an endless Midwestern winter and a busy semester in which I was taking 16 credits — looking back, I was lucky to just have a Spring Break, to have seven consecutive days off from school. This year, few, if any, college students will have the same luxury.

During the typical academic year, University students receive a four-day Fall Break. This is not the typical school year, though. This year, seas of maize-clad fans will not pack the Big House and the fall semester began with 78% of undergraduate credits being offered online. Adding to the abnormalities, the recent increase in cases resulted in a stay-in-place order for U-M students was issued by the Washtenaw County Public Health Department. This year has posed unforeseen, unprecedented obstacles for all groups, and students are no exception. While observing the tragic state of our nation, we are fighting for change, and juggling our online education and extracurriculars. However, October passed without the first Fall Break since its creation in 2002 and the University decided to scrap Spring Break during the winter semester in hopes of reducing student travel, and therefore curbing COVID-19 cases on campus.

Academic breaks arecrucial to student mental health, focus, productivity and overall well-being. LSA sophomore Brittany Hull shared her perspective on the lack of breaks for students during the 2020-2021 academic year. “This year, a break may be more essential than ever,” Hull said. “Even if it is not for us to go back home, just a break from classes would be beneficial. This is the most stressful year I have ever had as a student. There are a lot of things going on in the world, and we are just expected to bear the weight of that.” 

LSA senior Larry Jia told The Daily he has used past Spring Breaks to travel to Florida and New York with his friends, but also spent the 2020 Spring Break catching up on work from his apartment on campus.

Indeed, there are many ways students spend their Spring Break. It grants time with friends and family, an opportunity to vacation, space to catch up on work, the ability to prepare for upcoming exams and participate in extracurricular activities or volunteer efforts, such as those made possible by the Alternative Spring Break program. Universities cite the spread of COVID-19 from student travel as the main reason to have canceled breaks this academic year. In Michigan, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University and Grand Valley State University have all eliminated Spring Break, along with schools across the country including Penn State University, Purdue University, The Ohio State University, the University of Florida, the University of Kentucky and the University of Alabama.

Instead of a week off in the latter months of winter, schools are either tacking a week onto the end of Winter Break, and/or adding single days off in the middle of the week throughout the winter semester in hopes of preventing students from travelling. As of now, Michigan State plans to give three days off, and Ohio State has added two days off to their academic calendar. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan has not added any days off to the Winter 2021 schedule.

Despite these attempts to ease the burden of living through a pandemic and attending college, students are voicing their concerns with the absence of typical breaks. A student penned a letter to MSU President Stanley requesting that he reverse his decision to cancel spring break, reasoning that the current situation is “exhausting far beyond the norm of college difficulty.”

Relatedly, a petition demanding a mental health break for Grand Valley students during the Winter 2021 semester has garnered over 4,000 signatures. In the comments, student signees cite mental health concerns, being behind in classes and tanking grades as reasons for GVSU to add a break to next semester’s schedule. 

In response to the absence of breaks in the winter semester schedule, Central Student Government at the University of Michigan is working on a resolution urging the University to “implement a University-wide break on exams and other high stakes assignments (which [CSG defines] as contributing to 10% or more of a student’s final grade for a course) for one week during the Winter 2021 semester.” The resolution explains that “classes will not be cancelled during this week, but the low stakes nature will engender the mental health benefits of the spring break for both students and teachers while still discouraging travel in light of COVID-19.”

Hull told The Daily that the resolution “sounds like a great initiative.” Citing the typical stressors

of student life that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, she told The Daily she “appreciates the effort to try and give students a break next semester.”

Not all students agree that the resolution will be effective. LSA junior Elizabeth Dickinson told The Daily she would prefer that professors have the ability to create their schedule and spread out high-stakes assignments and exams to best fit the needs of their specific courses and students.

While the effectiveness and true benefits of the resolution remain to be seen if it is adopted, it seems that student organizations support the effort: over 100 have signed the resolution.

Despite the absence of a Fall and Spring Break, students are embracing the flexibility of online classes to create their own vacations and breaks. I learned from talking to friends and scrolling through Instagram that students have taken trips to Florida and Chicago, visited other college campuses in search of parties and have rented cabins up north to find a temporary reprieve, despite having to bring along laptops to attend class. Jia told The Daily he has observed this trend in his social circles.

“One of my friends has spent the past couple months driving across the country,” Jia said. “I do not know how they are managing that with coursework.” 

The fact that students with online classes are traveling and interacting as they see fit during the pandemic indicates the weakness of the argument that eliminating breaks is an effective way to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It is understandable that schools have cancelled week-long breaks to discourage travel, but numerous universities have provided single days off throughout the semester in replacement. In contrast, the Winter 2021 schedule is another failure of the University’s administration to consider the health and well-being of students; the University has refused to grant a single weekday off throughout 14 weeks (a total of 98 days) of classes. 

Even when originally developing the fall break in 2002, administrators and students acknowledged not all students would use the break with its intended purpose in mind: to study and catch up on work. Still, Fall Break was implemented and is regarded to serve a purpose for the mental health and well-being of students, regardless of how they personally choose to use the two days off. Relatedly, it is aggravating that the University has stripped all students of this break during the semester we arguably need it most.

The past few weeks have revealed the University can only control the activity and travel of students so much — regardless of the length or date of a break, students will use the time to spend it how they want, where they want — and that is not a reason to omit all breaks from the Winter 2021 semester, especially since students are already traveling across the country while classes are in session. And regardless of whether the CSG resolution is successful, the consensus among students is that any days off in the middle of the week is preferable none at all. 

“What about the people that are trying to do the right thing? What about the students that would stay and study, and use the extra time for the right things?” Dickinson asked.

“Even if they cannot send us home, there should be a mental break for us,” Hull said.

Putting the implications of an entire winter semester without a spring break into perspective, albeit lightly, Jia said, “Having 14 straight weeks of school is kind of terrible.”

Regardless of the public health crisispolitical tensionsracial reckoning and economic instability of the United States, not to mention how these crises fuel each other, I think a couple days off this semester, and certainly next semester, are in order — we have days off during “normal times.” With no clear idea on when or how the pandemic will end, it is likely the additional stressors of coronavirus will remain a tremendous added stressor for students well into next semester, and the University’s academic calendar should reflect students’ and faculty’s current circumstances. Many students are the most exhausted, stressed and fearful we have ever been in our lives. So, can we get a break?