Over 125 students have signed a petition advocating for periodic days off during the spring semester.
The online call-to-action was spearheaded by Bethany Rhinehart, a sophomore psychology major. The petition is addressed to the UB administration and calls for periodic reading days so students can unwind and recuperate from schoolwork and various other responsibilities. It was launched in response to the current, breakless spring calendar, which the UB Faculty Senate adopted on Oct. 18, following weeks of spirited debate.
Tibyan Elzain, a sophomore psychology major, said she supports the petition because going 15 consecutive weeks without a break presents a burden on her mental health.
“I believe that mental health days are extremely important and it is super easy to burn out within the semester, especially considering how much work there is to do every day,” Elzain said. “I feel as if my mental health has slowly been deteriorating over the course of the pandemic and it doesn’t help that I feel stuck in my room all day.”
Rhinehart felt inspired to start the petition on the same day that UB President Satish Tripathi and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs A. Scott Weber sent an email to the university community explaining the new, breakless calendar.
In a typical spring semester, students would have a week off for spring break, usually in mid-to-late March. Rhinehart says the asynchronous nature of some of her classes last semester made that 15-week period even more challenging than most. She says this semester presents similar challenges and that students need more breaks, not fewer.
“It was really difficult, and I ended up failing a course which took a tank on my whole self esteem. I was wondering whether or not I should be in college anymore,” Rhinehart said.
Rhinehart wrote on the petition, “The precautions surrounding COVID-19 have brought on a large increase of mental health issues. On top of quarantining and a lack of human interaction, students will have to work online for 15 weeks straight without a break.”
According to survey data collected by researchers at the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the pandemic has resulted in increased anxiety, difficulties concentrating and disruptions to sleep schedules for students. Another study from the Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association reported that 60% of surveyed undergraduates found it challenging to access mental health services during the pandemic.
Tripathi and Weber outlined the amended spring calendar in an email sent to the student body on Dec. 17. The email states that scheduling classes throughout spring break will help stop the spread of COVID-19. In a Nov. 8 press release, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras instructed state schools to cancel spring break, but gave them the ability to schedule periodic reading days during the semester. .
Last semester, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee debated “at least” three versions of the spring calendar, including one that was “largely the same” as a resolution the Council for Advocacy and Leadership passed encouraging the FSEC to prioritize student mental health in its decision.
But the committee ultimately decided to adopt the breakless calendar, as The Spectrum reported in December.
“I myself was happy with all versions,” Robert S. Miletich, chair of the Faculty Senate, wrote in an email to UB administrators on Oct. 29. “[B]ut with the edicts from SUNY Administration coming so late in the game, that no in-person instruction was to be performed prior to Feb. 1 and the desire to have commencements, if that opportunity arises, the current version is what we are left with.”
University officials said in a statement that revising the calendar once the semester has started “would result in once-a-week sections of classes, clinical experiences, lab sections, etc. being cancelled ‘unevenly.’” He said that a single weekday off would “impact course selections.”
They also said that by heeding the petition, the university could be affecting its financial aid and accreditation.
The officials said that students were “encouraged to plan ahead.” They also noted that the university provides a “variety” of resources for students, from academic support services, to virtual wellness workshops, to mental health counseling options.
But some students still believe the university should offer them periodic reading days.
“I think it’s good to have a couple days off to just relax and not have to think about all of the stress in our lives right now,” said signee Lee Sharon, a junior majoring in psychology and social services.
The push for UB to take substantive action in addressing mental health issues stemming from the pandemic are far from new. Last fall, students pushed the university to adjust its S/U grading system, a hopeful solution to some but something Rhinehart says will “not give you a mental health day.”
Reinhart says the only way to truly give students a breather is to amend the schedule.
“It’s just going to take a load off your shoulders at the end of the semester, whereas days off throughout the semester give you room to breathe,” she said.
Jack Porcari is an assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Porcari is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science major with a minor in journalism. Aside from writing and editing, he enjoys playing piano, flow arts, reptiles and activism.