In her first semester of college, Breena Murdock has learned an important lesson: breaks are critical for her mental health.
She uses them to catch up on schoolwork, go for runs and relax in her dorm room.
But next semester, Murdock and all UB students may be enduring 15-straight weeks of classes, thanks to a SUNY directive canceling spring break due to COVID. The UB Faculty Senate will vote on the academic calendar on Tuesday, but it seems unlikely they will make any adjustments.
Like many of her peers, Murdock is concerned.
“I have anxiety because of my schoolwork and I stay up late because I’m so nervous to have [my] assignments perfect,” Murdock said. “It’s important for me to take breaks so I don’t freak myself out, but it seems impossible with deadlines constantly approaching.”
Murdock, a freshman electrical engineering major, was one of more than a dozen students who spoke to The Spectrum this week about their concerns over SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras’ decision. Students said the break is a necessary reprieve from the rigors of a 15-week semester, and a chance to recharge prior to its final stretch.
Without it, they worry, students may see a decline in their mental health.
In a statement, Malatras said spring break was cancelled to “limit potential spread of the virus.” But he did not address mental health concerns.
“Given the risks associated with COVID spread and travel, spring break and other holiday break periods are cancelled for all SUNY campuses,” Malatras wrote. “Campuses are allowed to build in single-day, midweek reading days throughout the semester as an alternative instructional pause.”
UB did not respond to multiple requests for comment about midweek reading days.
Kayla Sterner, a freshman sociology major, said she understands why Malatras decided to cancel spring break, but she cautioned that the decision could have undesirable ramifications.
“A few of my friends and I have felt very overwhelmed with the coursework and load of assignments just from the beginning of the semester to now,” Sterner said. “I feel that if we go for 15 weeks straight it will negatively affect students’ mental health and grades.”
Hannah Weierheiser, a second-year law student, said the School of Law usually gives days off during the week of Columbus Day, but it didn’t this semester and it was “brutal.”
“[I had] no time to catch up in classes and study,” Weierheiser said. “I never go on vacation for spring break, I always use it to catch up on classes. Getting rid of mid-semester breaks are brutal for graduate programs.”
Last year, as the pandemic started to take hold across the country, thousands of college students flocked to the sunny beaches of Florida and Texas during spring break.
In a now-infamous ABC video, students insisted on partying and were dismissive of the virus’ impact on the rest of the U.S. population.
“It’s really messing up my spring break,” one student said.
“If I get corona, I get corona,” another student said. “At the end of the day, it’s not going to stop me from partying.”
Spring break has long been a rite of passage for students, who spend the time traveling across the country, catching up on work or resting up before the end of the semester. But with the virus continuing to spread throughout the U.S., Malatras felt compelled to cancel the break.
Some students said they understand why Malatras canceled spring break. “It definitely is the best option we have in terms of slowing the spread come March,” Sterner said. But others feel the decision was shortsighted.
On Thursday, student government leaders with the Council for Advocacy and Leadership (COAL) passed a resolution that encourages the UB Faculty Senate and administration to reevaluate the spring schedule.
Led by UB student representative Mike Montoro, the council “recognizes that the mental health of students in inexorably tied to the stressors and work environment in their primary function as students and, as the voice of those students, is doubly concerned about the deletion of any and all days off as a serious threat to the well-being and academic performance as a whole for the university.”
Montoro is a non-voting member of the UB Faculty Senate, but he can make recommendations on behalf of the student body, like he plans on doing at the organization’s Tuesday meeting.
COAL recommends beginning classes remotely on Monday, Jan. 25, and holding spring recess’ on Tuesday, March 16 and Wednesday, March 24. It also encourages instructors who hold weekly Monday classes to designate a specific Monday to not hold classes.
In a statement, UB Counseling Services Director Sharon Mitchell said her department will “likely repeat” several fall virtual workshops and offer one-on-one teletherapy sessions. But she didn’t comment on the cancellation of spring break.
“During the spring semester, Counseling Services and Health Promotion will continue to offer a variety of virtual wellness programs that focus on self-care strategies, stress management, and developing healthy habits,” Mitchell said.
But not all students are convinced.
Aryan Dahad, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, called the policy “completely worthless” if it is meant to slow the spread of the virus, but ends up burdening students mentally instead.
“I look forward to the spring break as it’s a small amount of time mid-semester where I can relax my mind and escape for a few days,” Dahad said. “It’s also helpful as those of us who are lagging behind get a fair chance to catch up.”
Mike Fenner, a junior political science major, said he is using the Thanksgiving break as a chance to “take a breather from school and working full-time.” He fears not having a spring break could lead to emotional breakdowns.
“We just need breaks,” Fenner said. “Going 15 weeks straight anywhere from 15-21 credits is absolute insanity.”
Justin Weiss is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald.