“Privileged, out of touch, unsolicited, simplistic, excessively positive.”
This was the opening line of an email sent to students from Elizabeth Cracco, the University of Massachusetts’ first-ever executive director for Wellbeing, Access and Prevention in the office of Student Affairs and Campus Life. Cracco’s list of critical words were just a few used by the student community in response to UMass’ proposed mental health initiatives for the coming semester.
In an email sent out on Sept. 17, the campus community was informed of the revised academic calendar for Spring 2021. The semester’s start date was pushed up to Feb. 1 and spring break, as well as the two long weekends on Presidents’ Day and Patriots’ Day, were eliminated. This calendar is similar to that of the current semester in that students are expected to log on to Zoom for hours on end every day with no days off through May 4, 2021 – except for two “Wellbeing Wednesdays” scheduled on Feb. 24 and April 14.
When I read this email, I laughed to myself at the ridiculous idea of “Wellbeing Wednesdays.” And then, the reality of the calendar set in. The more I thought, the more problems I found below the surface of just being annoyed about spring break being taken away. That the University thinks a mere two days off in the middle of the week are enough to help students cope with an increasingly stressful semester only shows that administrators are out of touch with the needs of their students.
You may ask why I’m writing about the revised calendar now, almost a month after the original email was sent out — it’s because I quite literally have not had time to sit down and write an op/ed article since the semester began. With the revised fall calendar, UMass students have been on Zoom class every day since Aug. 24. This is the most draining semester I’ve had in my three years at UMass, and every student I’ve talked to agrees: having no breaks at all during the semester is taking a toll on our mental health.
The idea behind “Wellbeing Wednesdays” is that the University will be offering “programming and activities surrounding well-being for students and faculty,” according to the original email. The email does not mention whether or not the programming will be organized by the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH), which raises questions of what the programming will be. Telling overworked UMass students and staff to take some deep breaths, get out in nature and practice meditation when most of us only have fifteen minutes in between virtual classes isn’t really an effective way to combat the negative effects of having to sit on Zoom for hours on end. I would suggest students instead seek mental health counseling at CCPH, but CCPH too is often so busy and overworked that students cannot get a counseling appointment for months on end.
I understand where UMass is coming from with this idea. The elimination of spring break and long weekends is, according to the email, an attempt to prevent on-campus students and off-campus students living in the area from going home and possibly bringing COVID-19 cases back to campus. But what is preventing those students from going home on a regular weekend, or for that matter, on any day at all? Having fully online classes means that students do not have any reason to be close to campus. So long as they have an internet connection, they won’t need to miss class. Canceling three-day weekends will likely not deter students from going home or going out to party and creating a COVID-19 cluster. In fact, with the lack of breaks and constant stress of schoolwork, students may be more likely to seek out some form of respite from the pressure of school.
UMass should have consulted with students before rearranging our calendar and pushing aside student needs during a global pandemic. Cracco mentioned in her follow-up email that the University is forming a “Wellness Wednesday working group to plan for Spring 2021.” Hopefully this working group will listen to students during the spring semester, but only time will tell. I don’t fault the University for trying to come up with a solution to the toll this pandemic is taking on student mental health, I just think they were a bit misguided – restoring the two three-day weekends in spring semester would be more helpful than breaking up the work week with Wellbeing Wednesdays.
Ana Pietrewicz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @anapietrewicz.