Angles: Should Augustana take breaks throughout the semester?

Due to COVID-19 precautions, the fall 2020 semester was on a strict schedule with no intermittent breaks. It was fast and allowed for more time at home during the holidays, but it also meant accelerated coursework with little downtime to catch up on homework or to take much needed breaks.

Fall 2021 has been the most normal in almost two years, and with it the shorter breaks throughout the semester have returned. Students had fall and Thanksgiving break with more federal holidays off like Native American Day and Veterans Day. However, some students preferred the semester’s speed of fall 2020. 

With the new COVID-19 variants, should Augustana return to these accelerated schedules for good or try to return to a regular semester?

Yes, intermittent breaks, please

High stress levels, piles of homework and feelings of burnout are almost prerequisites for the end of any semester of college. Any “How are you?” is almost always met with “fine” at best and “oh… you know” at worst. 

At the end of this fall semester, the most normal one we’ve had in two years, I’m still feeling the stress and burnout this year, but not nearly as hard as I felt it last year. As I was reflecting, I realized why: long weekends. 

Labor Day. Native American Day. Fall break. Veterans Day. All of these holidays were met with one to two days off of school, a few three-or-four-day weekends thrown into a busy semester. Students could go home, take a weekend trip, catch up on sleep or binge a Netflix series, all activities we rarely have time to do in a busy semester, if at all.

These breaks and what students choose to do with them offer relief from the many roles we play as college students. These roles include being students, classmates, athletes, friends, leaders of extracurricular groups, employees, volunteers and so much more. 

Although many of us willingly take on some of these roles and choose to keep ourselves busy, Augustana is also a school that values high campus engagement from its students. Students are more than happy to lead and learn, but being met with a couple days of break in return gives our students the rest they deserve to keep doing so. 

Students need breaks, however, regardless of how involved they are on campus. According to a study from Ohio State University, burnout in college students rose from 40% to 71% between April 2020 and August 2021. Burnout is characterized by energy depletion and exhaustion, increased mental distance, feelings of cynicism and reduced professional efficacy, according to the World Health Organization. 

This is almost identical to the description of a typical college student come late November. It’s clear that feelings of being burnt out are rising among students, leading to students who are less productive, less attentive, and even worse, less happy. 

Even though students work hard, and the rest is well-deserved, breaks do not need to be earned. Rest does not hinge on reading one more chapter or going through our flashcards one more time despite nearly falling asleep in the middle of the library.

In the same way, breaks do not hinge on our ability to push ourselves through one more week of long days filled to the brim with classes, meetings, work and more. Breaks and rest are a necessary part of life, even if we feel like we should have done a bit more homework that day. 

The breaks we didn’t get last year were traded for more time at the end of the year, with finals ending on Dec. 11 in 2020 as opposed to Dec. 17 this year. Although it is appreciated to get a longer winter break, the breaks would better serve college students when spaced throughout the year. We use breaks to relieve the stress we face during the semester. Midterms seem a little bit more bearable knowing we get a four-day weekend afterward to destress and prepare for the remainder of the semester.

As someone with “achiever” in my top five strengths, I can appreciate the “push to the end as fast as we can” mentality. I know myself well enough, however, to know that I need to take a step back in order to be as productive as I can be. Being a good student necessitates knowing when to take a break. Taking care of students necessitates giving them breaks.

No, let’s just get through this

I know you’re tired. But we should go back to a no-break semester schedule.

You know that feeling when you’re taking some time for yourself — maybe watching Netflix or baking some cookies or playing video games — and then you’re hit with anxiety? 

That’s homework guilt. You know there’s a responsibility hiding around the corner. It’s that feeling you got on Sunday when you realized you spent your whole Thanksgiving break doing what break is actually for — relaxing. 

You shouldn’t feel guilty for resting during rest periods. But middle-of-the-semester breaks are filled with just as much work as regular school days. We’re still expected to be doing something over those days off, so you can barely call them restful.

You went into Thanksgiving break stressed and depressed, telling yourself that you would use those five days off to catch back up on your homework. Then all of a sudden, it’s Sunday afternoon and you’re trying to finish the work you have due the next morning.

Your to-do list wasn’t touched. You didn’t get ahead on your syllabi or start that term paper like you were hoping. Instead of easing your mind, you’ve elongated the duration of stress. 

Now that you’re back on campus, winter break feels so touchably close. But buckle up. There are still two weeks left until you can go home. 

Then, surprise surprise, you get to come back for J-term. Too bad you left your motivation with the turkey leftovers and spiced cider.

Remember last year when Thanksgiving break marked the near start of winter break, too?

You were able to go home for the year by the end of November with just a few online finals to round out the semester. 

Yeah, last year’s calendar hurt a little. We went hard — not one day off from Aug. 26 to Nov. 20, but after that burst we were done. That’s just 12 weeks. 

Nowhere in the semester schedule were breaks for you to slack off. You started with momentum and had to finish with it too. It was exhausting, but you did it. The time flew by.

This year we’re not done until Dec. 17. With a Sept. 1 start date and no at-home finals, that makes 15 weeks of work.

Yay. Three weeks of extra work. 

Last year’s calendar also accounted for a 31-day break between the last day of (online) finals and the first day of interim classes. This year, that number is just 17. 

Adding semester breaks nearly cut our winter break in half.

Winter break is the only pause in the school year where you don’t have homework guilt. There’s no thinking about chapter eight from your textbook or the five-page paper due after you return. There’s no need to feel guilty for ignoring your homework. You have none. You can actually spend an afternoon binge watching TV without the stress of responsibility. 

Last year’s calendar might have been designed to keep students on campus to avoid COVID-19 infection rates increasing, but we learned something about the easiest way to get through a semester.

If you can go hard for just a few months, you can be rewarded with a combined extra month of real vacation. No stress, no upcoming deadlines, just vacation.

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