Following a decision to cancel Washburn University’s spring break next semester, students are urging the university’s administration to reconsider their decision, saying student voices were left out of the calendar process.
In a message to the university community late last week, JuliAnn Mazachek, vice president for academic affairs, announced that after a recommendation from the university’s academic calendar committee, Washburn was making the “difficulty decision” to remove the weeklong break from the spring 2021 semester.
With the change, students would return as scheduled on Jan. 16 but would go through 15 uninterrupted weeks of classes, with finals week scheduled a week earlier between May 1 and 7. Washburn officials said the change would help minimize COVID-19 transmission by reducing student travel.
“As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow both nationally and in our state, it is incumbent upon the university to design an academic schedule that minimizes opportunity for contraction and transmission of this virus,” Mazachek said in the email to the university community. “Washburn University is committed to providing the best possible environment for students to continue their educational journey and meet their goals while protecting the health and safety of all faculty, staff and students.”
But student leaders said they were blindsided by the announcement, and on Wednesday evening, the Washburn Student Government Association passed a resolution calling on the administration to reconvene the calendar committee and consider an alternative that would add three “mental health days” into the spring calendar.
“We understand the need for safety, but we can’t sacrifice safety for mental health,” said student body president Victoria Smith. “Physical health is one thing, but if you’re not there mentally or emotionally, you’re not there at all — physicality can be damned, basically. We just want the community to know that we’re trying to fight for what is right, especially when we’re putting so much money into everything the school does. We deserve days off, just like the rest of the world.”
Smith, the student representative on the calendar committee, and other student leaders said that in the weeks leading up to the decision, they had spoken up against removing spring break outright without offering some alternative schedule with breaks built in. Under the senate’s proposal, Washburn would add a “mental break day” in each of the months of February, March and April.
“If we, as a university, faculty and student body, have been able to navigate last semester when COVID struck, summer classes and currently this semester — if we’ve been able to be flexible with that and figure out how all that works, there really is no excuse for why the administration can’t work in three days when we’ve done all of this otherwise,” said Jason Caffrey, WSGA chief of staff.
“It really shows if they’re unwilling to do that, then maybe their priorities aren’t all really there with what students are saying, because we’re loud and clear on this,” he added.
At the student senate’s Wednesday meeting, Jennifer Ball, an economics professor and chair of the calendar committee, explained how the committee had come to the decision to recommend cancelling spring break.
She said the committee had considered options like trimming the semester at either end, or holding spring break later in the semester but holding classes remotely after that break. The committee had even considered and had favored a mini-break option, similar to what the students were advocating for.
But after speaking with representatives from various academic departments, they had realized it would be difficult to implement, since the proposed breaks would disrupt classes that are only held on certain days and lecture/lab class combos, she said.
The decision, she noted, is in line with what other Kansas higher education institutions, like the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, are doing.
“It certainly is one of those things where if it were a math problem, you’d have a ‘no feasible solution’ problem, since you just don’t have anything that’s going to make people happy,” Ball said. “What we really want to concentrate on is, of course, your health and safety, and staying together all semester.”
Mazachek also spoke with students, reiterating Ball’s comments that in working through difficult pandemic decisions, university officials are essentially working through math problems. However, student senator Megan Dorantes said she wasn’t impressed with university official’s indifference to students’ mental health.
“You cannot look at mental health and students struggling as a math equation,” she told Mazachek. “We’re not numbers, we’re not equations, we’re not fragments. We’re human beings with human emotions and situations that cause us to react on those. Looking at this as a math equation dehumanizes not only us, but it dehumanizes our experiences, and it says that we are only seen as sources of money to fund the school.”
Mazachek apologized to the students and said she and other university officials never meant to imply that students were only numbers to them. She told the senate that while she couldn’t promise any change as a result of the resolution, she would relay the student senate’s comments to other university leaders.
Chris Jones, a professor of religious studies and a faculty senate representative, said he and other faculty sympathized with students and weren’t excited about the prospect of 15 straight weeks of classes without a break. So far this semester, he said he’s noticed that students are increasingly lacking focus, failing to meet deadlines and getting behind in their classes.
“”There’s a body of growing evidence that shows that a lot of this is trauma-related, that students are writing checks out of their own mental health to keep up with their classes and that’s catching up with them,” he said. “I’m very concerned about morale, and the degree to which we’re already exhausted.”
He said that he supported the students in their push to at least ask the administration to reconsider their decision in a way that addresses student and faculty mental health.
With how this semester is already going, Smith said she and other students need time off of the stress of COVID-19 and classes.
“It’ll be a rejuvenation for students and faculty to take a break, just because the world is so crazy right now,” she said. “We need it now more than ever.”