Spring break: that one glorious week in March when one can cut loose and forget about the pressures of homework and classes. Before the pandemic, many Dukes were able to travel to sunny Florida for a week at the beach. Others might’ve taken the time to be with their families to rest and rejuvenate before launching into the last stretch of the spring semester.
However, this semester none of that will be possible.
“To help curb the spread of COVID-19 caused by travel, and as recommended by medical professionals, there will not be a week-long Spring Break in March,” the university said in its official Spring 2021 Return to Campus Plan. “Instead, there will be two [wellness] days within the semester on which classes will not meet but university offices will remain open.”
This announcement in January received mixed responses from students, many of whom were upset at having to cancel long-standing plans and who were looking ahead to three straight months of school with no significant break time.
But students aren’t the only ones who’ve been impacted by the university’s decision. Professors across departments are also finding it difficult to plan their classes around the wellness days and prepare mentally for a spring semester with no break. A professor, wanting to be anonymous fearing backlash from JMU who will go by “Jane Doe,” said both instructors and students have been “stretched to the max.”
“Teaching well online requires time and energy,” Doe said. “As an instructor, I’m spending many more hours on prepping to deliver engaging online classes.”
Dolores Flamiano, a media arts and design professor, said professors were just as sorry as students to see the mid-semester break go.
“I was very disappointed to hear about the cancelation of spring break,” Flamiano said. “I know a lot of students use the time to travel and go on alternative spring breaks. [As for professors], many of us use that time for research or larger projects, which we won’t be able to do now.”
Although many are sad to see spring break go, Professor Katherine Hessick from the College of Business said that because of students traveling, seeing family and often partying irresponsibly during spring break, the university’s decision was an important one.
“I realize that it was necessary for spring break to be canceled,” Hessick said. “Students may not see it that way, but by them not going on spring break, they’re actually helping their fellow students stay healthy.”
Many can understand the university’s desire to keep the larger community safe and healthy, but other students and professors are also concerned that this decision may negatively impact their mental health and wellness.
“In the face of more stress [from the pandemic], it seems to me that we should have more time out of classes, not less,” Doe said. “Mentally exhausted students and instructors will perform less, not more, [which] will ultimately … burn us all out until we get a break ... which we don’t get this year.”
Hessick said that most professors are acutely aware of the mental health implications of the cancelation of spring break, both for their students and for themselves.
“It’s going to be hard,” Hessick said. “There’s a lot of work that [we’re all] going to have to do. But if we can … break it down into smaller pieces and have good organization skills, then it will become easier.”
Although the next few months may be hard, Flamiano and other professors have said that they’re going to do the best they can to help students succeed and feel heard.
“I think that’s my job — No. 1 is getting to know students, letting them know that I’m really mindful of the struggles that they’re going through and what they’re missing out on,” Flamiano said. “So, I’m really trying to … treat every student like an individual and … reach out and be available to them if they want to talk [or] if they have ideas.”
With the stress of online classes and fears about the spread of COVID-19, it’s likely that many students are in for a tense semester. For those who become easily overwhelmed or are worried about turning in assignments, Hessick suggests being open and honest with professors.
“The most important thing is that if you are feeling overwhelmed … if you are feeling like you can’t handle what’s coming your way … talk to your professors,” Hessick said. “We know your struggles, and we are very empathetic towards them. And many faculty members I think would work with students, but [they] won’t know what’s going on with you unless you … tell them.”
A different professor, who requested to go anonymous fearing university backlash, felt that these days won’t be sufficient for ensuring student health and well-being and that these wellness days show the university is more concerned with its image than with caring for its student community.
“It seems to me that the university is more concerned with policing rigor, student attendance and instructor behavior rather than fostering academic engagement and achievement with truly humane policies and schedules,” the professor said. “The messaging from the university is contradictory — they value and appreciate the struggle we’re all experiencing, but they also don’t want us to have time off.”
Other professors said they were of the opinion that the wellness days were an appropriate compromise between the needs of students and the needs of the university.
“I think that the wellness days are a good agreement with the administration to have these days where students don’t have classes,” Hessick said. “I do understand that having a random Thursday during the semester isn’t really going to be enough time … to help students decompress, but it’s a nice gesture.”
Regardless of how effective the wellness days will truly be, they’ve already been blocked into the spring 2021 calendar. Many students may be tempted to use those days to study or to catch up on some sleep, but Hessick and Flamiano had other suggestions as to the most productive and rejuvenating ways to use the days.
“[I want to] give my students some ideas or suggestions about things that they could do to really take care of themselves during those days instead of sleeping in and taking the day off,” Flamiano said. “[I suggest they] do something proactive and be active in the community … whether that’s reaching out or going outside more than they usually would.”
Flamiano said she intends to plan some “mini-vacations” for herself and her husband, which will include visits to nearby national parks for hiking and trips to Charlottesville and Richmond for a change of scenery. She said that turning these days into opportunities to have new or different experiences is a safe and productive way to rest and reset before school resumes.
For those who are homebodies or want to remain inside to ensure their safety, Hessick gave some suggestions as to how to use the wellness days productively.
“I would say that on the wellness days, you do nothing,” Hessick said. “Those wellness days are set aside to basically not have JMU exist in your life. [If you’re just] doing homework or trying to use those days to catch up … then you’re not going to have a break. Instead, do something that you truly enjoy that you don’t have the opportunity to do during the regular school year because that’s what’s going to bring you back to center.”
Although this semester will undoubtedly be difficult for many students, Hessick said, she believes students will come out stronger for it.
“In the end, I really do believe the students are going to have skills that previous students never had to have,” Hessick said. “[They] are learning how to be flexible and adaptive … I think it’s going to make [them] stronger in many ways.”
Flamiano said there are also some practical ways for students to keep themselves grounded and sane which may improve their mental health and overall well-being this semester.
“I think having a plan, having a routine really helps,” Flamiano said. “I think you can implement small changes in your everyday life that will help to fend off mental health issues, like [walking], doing yoga [or] going outside.”
Hessick said even if students are organized and take steps to take care of their mental health, they still might experience burnout. She added that it’s important to realize that no one is alone in their struggles with mental health and anxiety.
“[Students should know] that they’re not the only ones struggling,” Hessick said. “If you’re not struggling right now, I think you’re probably pretty weird. It’s OK to not be OK. But at the very least, you need to talk to somebody if you’re having issues.”
Hessick said that although this decision may seem harsh or frustrating right now, it’s all a part of an attempt to get through the pandemic so students can have better experiences in years to come.
“I think it’s important for everyone … whether it’s students or faculty or staff to understand that we are in this together,” Hessick said. “The only way we can get through [this] is if we all do our part and sacrifice where we need to in order to succeed with this until the vaccine is distributed widely within our community.”
Contact Alexandra Dauchess at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.