Last year, Eric Benda and his college friends flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a rejuvenating spring break trip, an experience he described as “one of the best weeks of my life.”
But this year? Benda, a mechanical engineering major at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, will barely leave his dorm.
“I’m disappointed that I can’t go anywhere ... but I do understand it,” said Benda, 20, of Carol Stream, who’s living on campus this semester and taking in-person classes.
Like many schools across the country, SIU canceled its traditional weeklong spring break to limit travel during the coronavirus pandemic. Other colleges are either shortening the break or advising students to stay put — one is even offering students $75 gift cards to remain on campus during the recess.
But the prospect of a nonstop semester can be daunting for stressed-out young adults, especially after a tumultuous year of online learning and social isolation. As professors and students raise concerns about mental health, some colleges eliminating break have added single non-instruction days to break up the term. Still, there are typically fewer vacation days this semester.
At SIU, the spring term started a week later than normal and an optional “spirit week” is scheduled to run through Saturday, while classes will continue. The spirit week will include activities such as bingo, crate stacking and painting to provide “a fun springtime respite,” according to a spokeswoman. Students can also claim free apparel that says, “I lost my spring break and all I got was this T-shirt.”
Benda, however, doesn’t plan to participate.
“It just doesn’t really appeal to me at all,” he said. “I don’t think it really helps (with stress relief). They’re at least trying something, but it just doesn’t really make up for it.”
SIU won’t call off any instructional days during the spirit week, according to the spokeswoman.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has also nixed its normal spring break. The faculty senate in October approved the schedule change, which pushed back the start of spring semester to allow for entry testing after the winter holidays and added three “non-instruction days.” Professors could not schedule exams, assignment due dates or class meetings on the non-instruction days of Feb. 17, March 24 and April 13.
“Without a week-long spring break this semester and given the heightened stress associated with the ongoing pandemic, it is critically important to our students’ wellness to honor these non-instruction days,” Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in an online message.
The non-instruction days take place on a Wednesday or Tuesday to avoid creating long weekends that are tempting for travel.
Zarifah Shahid, a sophomore majoring in global studies, said she doesn’t think the allotted days are sufficient to combat student burnout.
Shahid, 18, who is learning remotely from her Hyde Park home this semester, said she “respects” the policy because it was designed to prevent risk, but she noted that students are overwhelmed with online learning and out-of-school stressors caused by the pandemic, such as losing a job or caring for a sick relative. A spring break typically provides a total of five days off, she said.
“I don’t know if consecutive days would be possible because that would cut into class structure and everything, but I would definitely suggest more days,” Shahid said. “Maybe one or two every month, as opposed to, like, one every six to eight weeks.”
Shahid said she spent her first non-instruction day sleeping in. And after rising around noon, she used the time off to catch up on homework. While she hopes to enjoy the next one more by celebrating her upcoming birthday, she might need to scrap those plans if she falls behind.
“College students are troopers right now,” Shahid said. “All of us are different levels of burnout and we’re still doing our thing.”
Student representatives in the UIUC senate proposed adding more non-instruction days, but the idea failed to pass. Administrators expressed concern about losing more class time and about scheduling implications for commencement and the summer term.
For most other Big Ten schools, spring break is also off the table.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison eliminated spring break, delayed the start of spring classes and added one long weekend in April. The University of Michigan is adding two midweek, one-day “well being breaks” during the spring term in lieu of spring vacation, and Purdue University has similar plans.
At Indiana University Bloomington, winter break was extended by several weeks and there’s no spring break, said junior Brandon Gitles of Glenview, who’s studying finance and business analytics. IU added three “wellness days” on Feb. 16, March 24 and April 22, though some students have critiqued them as “seemingly random” and “ineffective.”
Gitles, 21, said he fully supports the cancellation of spring break and that safety is his top priority.
“Sure, we’d love to be able to go home. We’d love to be able to have a break, but people aren’t getting sick, and that’s what ultimately matters to me,” he said, noting the school’s positivity rate remains low.
Gitles lives near campus this semester but continues taking classes remotely because he doesn’t want to risk getting sick, though he knows there’s little evidence of COVID-19 transmission in class.
But with online courses, looking for a job and the anxiety of following pandemic news, Gitles admits he’s “completely exhausted.” The extra days off help reduce stress but don’t compare to a traditional spring break, he said.
“You still have to think about classes the next day and doing homework and all the stuff like that,” he said. “But the (long winter) break kind of compensates for it.”
Loyola University Chicago is taking a different approach, splitting its traditional break into two long weekends. The first occurred in February and the second was March 6 to 10.
Freshman Kaitlyn Schwarz, a psychology major, said she took advantage of the time off to safely socialize with friends. She traveled to Florida with her suite mate for the first break and spent time with classmates — her “bubble” of friends — in a Wisconsin cabin for the second.
Schwarz, 19, of Milwaukee, said she was tested for COVID-19 immediately upon return under her school’s protocols, which require on-campus students to undergo saliva tests twice weekly.
“I want to be respectful of what other people need and are comfortable with, but I also want to enjoy my time in the city since I only have four years here and I’m only in college for four years,” she said. “You have to be considerate of how other people are taking this.”
Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, which operate on the quarter system, will allow for traditional spring breaks. All classes in the week following break will be held remotely at both schools, and students are expected to remain at their residences for the majority of this period while following testing protocols.
U. of C. is asking students to avoid leaving the Chicago area, noting that infection risk increases “during high-volume travel periods, and could raise the chances of bringing the virus back to campus or nearby South Side communities.”
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