Editorial: We are exhausted

Spring academic calendar changes are needed

Editorial Board

We are nearly there, folks. By the time this issue of The Observer is published, our final classes of the week are likely to have begun, after which, students on campus will begin their move-out process. We will then commence a beautiful nine-day hiatus with no immediately looming deadlines or Zoom classes awaiting our attendance. While there are certainly papers and exams for which we could be preparing, it is likely none of us will. The reasoning is, as illuminated by Jothsna Sabbasani’s article this week, exhaustion. The past 13 weeks have been tiresome—emotionally, physically and academically. 

College students already disproportionately suffer from high rates of mental health issues. Now, these same challenges we face are only exacerbated by a global pandemic, Zoom fatigue, time zone differences, being away from friends, and the academic environment (or lack thereof) of home bedrooms. While we can all practice self-care—getting sufficient sleep, eating healthy food, exercising regularly, talking about mental health concerns—these strategies can only take us so far. Moreover, they are often limited by our academic and extracurricular commitments. 

This semester, we exchanged our usual Labor Day, fall and Thanksgiving breaks for a week-long recess at the end of November. We are all excited for the impending break because we need one. We are falling behind on both our academics and our well-being. Thirteen weeks of classes, papers, exams and midterms have drained us of all our energy. We cannot have another semester like this.  

Fortunately, students won’t have to repeat this situation. Unfortunately, the plan for spring is arguably worse than that of this semester. We will be starting later than usual, in February, and then continuing all the way through finals—16 weeks—without a significant break. The university has announced we will have two individual days off in consecutive weeks around the time of a usual spring break in March.

In response to a series of questions on the topic, Provost Ben Vinson III commented that the decision was made with major factors in mind: “(1) reducing COVID-19 transmission risks during the course of the semester and (2) ensuring that the calendar provided adequate time to meet both state and accreditation standards and the learning objectives for courses offered.” 

Obviously, these are both two critical considerations. We must do everything we can to limit the transmission of the virus, especially as the number of infections continues to set new daily records. However, fulfilling the Ohio Department of Higher Education standards and taking proper COVID-19 precautions need not be mutually exclusive with giving students a break.

Two third-year students, both completing their classes virtually from other time zones, commented on the matter. 

“Burnout is real, and especially with the pressure of the pandemic, this semester has been particularly difficult,” said one student. “I usually rely on our short mid-semester breaks to catch up on work and practice some self-care, and it’s been tough to not have the same luxury during such an overwhelming semester.” 

The other student responded similarly, saying “This semester’s been really difficult, and waiting three months to have a break has been very tiring, especially because Zoom classes have resulted in increased workload. It takes me a few days to be able to fully relax and feel okay … Having two individual days off next semester won’t alleviate any stress off of students.” 

Both students raised the concern of going through another demanding semester in the spring without sufficient breaks. 

Another unfortunate trademark of remote education, raised by the second student, is that professors have adopted the belief that students have more time since we are not on campus or involved in extracurriculars. First of all, many clubs are still meeting over Zoom—refuting the belief that students are somehow less involved this semester. Moreover, the university needs to address the dramatic influx of work, as it is contributing to students’ inability to academically perform well, let alone take care of ourselves. 

The university decided to only offer two individual days as “the delayed end to the semester already meant that students’ internships would be shorter and those going to full-time jobs also would arrive later,” said Vinson. 

Case Western Reserve University is largely not unique in their adoption of a few days off throughout the semester. Schools around the country, including Ohio State University, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Vermont-Burlington and University of Nebraska, Lincoln have all adopted these random break days. While there are other schools still planning to maintain the traditional week-long spring break, they seem to be smaller schools in more isolated areas with greater capacity to contain the virus, such as Swarthmore College. These examples illustrate that CWRU is not alone in this difficult decision-making. However, the decisions need to consider students’ health and well-being in equal parts as COVID-19 precautions and state regulations.  

The most viable solution currently seems to be that which Harvard University has adopted. They have abandoned spring break in favor of a series of “Wellness Days.” Rather than just one or two days concentrated in March, students at Harvard will start their classes on Jan. 25 and then have one day off in February, three days off in March and one day off in April. While it is certainly not an ideal schedule, it respects the need for more regular days off.  

CWRU’s spring semester has been delayed due to the introduction of a 3-week January term. While this does afford students a new opportunity to take another class under the same spring tuition cost, it should not be the justification for limited breaks throughout the semester. The university would do well to consider extending the semester by merely a few additional days in the name of having some extra days off. The last day of finals is Wednesday, May 19; it is unlikely that extending it through the end of that week would radically alter any students’ future employment plans. However, three additional days off during the semester could radically improve our health and sanity.  

We recognize that a change in the schedule would require approval by the Faculty Senate as well as other administrators. However, we’re asking faculty and staff to do so because concerns for our well-being are equally sizable. Upon asking dozens of students for this input, there was not a single one who felt that the current spring semester schedule adequately considered their mental, physical and academic exhaustion.