When Tufts announced the spring calendar in October, it was difficult to imagine what the absence of a full spring break would feel like. The revised calendar meant that students had a longer winter break and more time to quarantine after arriving in January, but also that the semester’s normal week of recuperation would be replaced with a single long weekend. Now, after a marathon of nine weeks of rigorous coursework and exams, students are experiencing the serious effects of burnout created by that decision.
Tufts faculty demonstrated their care for the welfare of their students when they voted to extend the fall exceptional pass/fail policy to the spring. Now, as we come upon the end of the academic year, professors must continue to recognize the extraordinary circumstances of this semester and act with empathy. Otherwise, students will continue to have to choose between their academic success and their mental health.
While it is understandable that a full week of vacation might have brought the risk of students traveling and spreading the virus, this was not reason enough to get rid of spring break entirely. Some of Tufts’ peer institutions still found creative solutions, including “wellness days,” non-consecutive days off that in total could have allowed as much time to rest as a traditional spring break. But aside from a single day off for a long “spring break” weekend, Tufts did not even meet students in the middle with wellness days. Offering “Staycation” events but not real time off from academic work signals a frustrating lack of concern for student mental health, during a semester when academic stress only piles onto interlocking global crises.
Given that a last minute change to the entire university’s academic calendar seems unlikely, we urge another segment of the Tufts community — professors — to act where the administration has not. Professors exercise considerable power through setting course agendas and schedules, and as they do so during this final month of the academic year, they should take into account how course activities will affect their students’ mental health and academic success. For professors who don’t normally do so during class time, this will require engaging with students to check in on their mental health and academic concerns, and then working with students to address them.
One way for professors to support overwhelmed students is to create their own wellness days. Though some professors already took this commendable step ahead of Tufts’ “spring break,” these instances were the exceptions, not the norm. If similar gestures became more common, students would have room to breathe during a semester that has offered little.
Some classes may face constraints that make taking a day off impossible, but even in these instances, there are steps a professor can take to support their students’ mental health. These include replacing a mandatory synchronous lecture with a condensed asynchronous lesson with the same content, or at least relaxing penalties that students face for missing an asynchronous class. Even taking the measure of dropping each student’s lowest quiz or homework grade would reduce the stress that any individual assignment will cause.
During a semester in which heightened medical and financial concerns exacerbate the challenges of academic life, students deserve more, not less time off than they would get in a normal semester. It is unfortunate that the university’s official calendar did not reflect this, but it is not too late for professors to step in and bring forth positive change. By supporting their students and understanding the toll continuous work can take on their mental health, professors have the power to work with their students to finish this semester as strongly as possible.