Opinion: BYU’s no-spring-break model doesn’t work during a pandemic

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Many students are experiencing increased mental health problems during the pandemic. A semester without a break will only exacerbate those problems. (Photo illustration via Unsplash)

My biggest gripe during my four years at BYU has been the fact that BYU does not have a spring break — and no, “spring day,” as some students jokingly refer to the Friday we get off in March, doesn’t count.

After just finishing our first full semester during the COVID-19 pandemic, my angst at the lack of BYU’s spring break is higher than ever. This semester has been rough for everyone, and I know I at least relished in the solace that Thanksgiving break provided for me and my mental health.

The idea of having to repeat the torture of this semester without such a break is a fairly dismal thought. Picture it — 15 full weeks of stress and deadlines non-stop.

Sure there’s President’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but if those two holidays haven’t offered enough of a break during a normal semester, I doubt they’ll be much of a relief during a pandemic.

So why doesn’t BYU have a spring break? With the decision to start Winter Semester 2020 a week late, the university has shown that a full 16 weeks apparently isn’t necessary as far as academics go (and I’ve had more than one professor say they want a spring break as much as students).

We’ve all heard the rumors that BYU’s decision to forgo spring break is a religiously based one, that no spring break equals no spring break temptation. But official sources point to more secular reasons.

The university has told the Daily Universe in the past that BYU doesn’t have a spring break because of its tight schedule with Education Week and other summer commitments and the fact that it gives students a head start on summer jobs and internships.

Neither of those reasons seem to make much sense in our current situation.

While the recent arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine is certainly something to celebrate, the pandemic is far from over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says most Americans won’t be able to take the vaccine until “later in 2021,” and experts are estimating we could get back to some semblance of normal next spring or summer, but only if most Americans elect to take the vaccine.

In other words, there’s a decent chance BYU’s packed summer schedule may be moved online once again. This, coupled with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s decision to cancel EFY camps last year, will mean there’s less logistical pressure for BYU to finish the third week of April (much earlier than most U.S. universities).

The pandemic has also drastically changed how and where we work.

An October Gallup Poll found 58% of American workers always or sometimes work remotely and nearly two-thirds would like to continue working remotely. Furthermore, business news website HR Dive reported that flexible work may be the new normal post-pandemic.

One extra week at the end of April likely won’t make much of a difference for students if a decent amount of the internships and jobs they’re applying for have the ability to be done online, even if only for a week while they finish up the last week of the semester.

Of course, not all jobs can be done remotely. I’d be remiss to not acknowledge popular gigs like summer sales that require in-person work. I think we’ve all learned to be a little more flexible during the pandemic, though, and I’d like to think most employers would wait a week for you — especially when most college/recently graduated applicants will be finishing their semesters later anyway. In fact, many of the internships I’ve applied for during my time as an undergrad, specifically start later into the summer because of the timing of most other university semesters.

While the pandemic has weakened the arguments against a spring break, it’s strengthened the reasons to have one, namely to help students’ mental health.

Many of the factors that put stress on students’ mental health, like economic hardship and isolation, are at an all-time high for many students.

Two-thirds of students report their financial situation has become more stressful and about one-third say their living situation changed due to the pandemic, according to a Spring 2020 survey of 18,764 students from 14 campuses by the American College Health Association.

The survey also found that 40% of students reported witnessing race-based discrimination either in person or online and that a higher proportion of students (31% up from 21.9% pre-pandemic) said their mental health was negatively impacting their academic performance.

A more recent survey published in September by the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 71% of the college student respondents experienced stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“College students comprise a population that is considered particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns,” the study says. “The findings of our study highlight the urgent need to develop interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of college students.”

A spring break would be an effective strategy to address this need. It might not take away the added stressors of pandemic life, but it would mitigate the college-specific stressors students are facing.

But then again, we wouldn’t want a repeat of spring break 2020, when thousands of college students picked up the virus during their travels and then spread it to their home communities.

So how do we balance public health and students’ mental health?

A number of colleges, including Harvard and Penn State, have decided to forgo spring break and instead cancel class on a number of days throughout the semester, a trend dubbed “wellness days.”

This would give students — and professors — the well-deserved break they need without putting them and the community at risk.

And, maybe this is wishful thinking, but wellness days could eventually be consolidated into an actual spring break post-pandemic. There has to be some silver lining to all of this, right?

— Sydnee Gonzalez
Universe Photojournalist

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