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Students react to U.Va.’s decision to replace Spring Break with days off throughout semester

Many worry about mental health and added stress without the traditional Spring Break

The Spring semester's instructional approach will largely mirror the fall semester — all classes will have an online component.
The Spring semester's instructional approach will largely mirror the fall semester — all classes will have an online component.

The University announced Oct. 22 that they will be replacing the traditional week-long Spring Break with multiple shorter breaks throughout the semester in an effort to limit travel. The intended break days are Wednesday, Feb. 17; Tuesday, March 9; Monday, March 29; and Thursday, April 15, while students are concerned about having to manage an entire semester without extended breaks.

The spring semester will begin Feb. 1, meaning that students will have a longer than two-month break between semesters. The instructional approach will largely mirror the fall semester — all classes will have an online component.

“All students who wish to study on Grounds will be welcome and we will offer as many in-person experiences as we safely can,” said Provost Liz Magill in a Return to Grounds email update.  “Every course will have an online component, with the exception of a small number of labs or practicums.”

Traditionally, Spring Break is an opportunity for students to unwind, and many students travel out of state or to exotic locations. Last year, Spring Break for many college students led to spikes in COVID-19 — like at the University of Texas at Austin — as students gathered in large groups without social distancing or masking. 

Third-year College student Anne-Caroline Aries-Praud said that while she understood the decision was made in order to keep students and the community safe, she was still frustrated at the prospect of another online semester without a break to look forward to.  

“I was disappointed [with the decision], but I understand the reasoning behind it,” Aries-Praud said. “It’ll be tougher because spring semester is longer than fall semester.”

Reflecting on the current fall semester, many students have expressed difficulties staying focused in an online learning environment. Zoom classes pose specific challenges — like Zoom fatigue, a phrase coined from the unique feeling of exhaustion many people have shared after long days of virtual interactions. 

This means many students are feeling more burnt-out than normal at this time in the semester, and many note difficulty staying motivated with far less opportunities to be social or return home. 

“Myself and a lot of friends have struggled this semester with keeping up the motivation… it’s hard day after day to do that without having breaks,” third-year College student Karissa Smith said. “It can feel like flying on autopilot.” 

First-years, who logged on to their first college class on Zoom instead of sitting in a lecture hall with their peers, are feeling the added stress of acclimating to college while learning in an online environment. First-year College student Caroline Schuster said that she is nervous that the spring semester will be even more stressful than the fall. 

“This semester was an accelerated semester and it’s put a lot of mental stress on me because we really need a break, so I’m stressed that next semester will be the same way,” Schuster said. 

Spring Break is not only a time for students to de-stress from classes, but also to return home and spend some quality time with family. The absence of clearly defined breaks — including Spring Break — impact out-of-state and international students, who may be unable to return home during the spring semester as they could have done with a week-long break. 

“I’m out-of-state [from Boston], so not having spring break sucks because I won’t be able to see my family,” Aries-Parud said. “Usually I go home throughout the semester, so it’ll be four months without seeing [them].” 

Regardless of how students chose to spend Spring Break — whether returning home, going on a trip with friends or staying in Charlottesville — the week is ultimately a time to unwind and escape the stress of academic life.

“University students need an opportunity to get out of the Charlottesville bubble, and I’m worried that we collectively take less time for ourselves if not built into the calendar,” Third-year College student Savannah Holmes said. 

Before the dates were specified, Holmes expressed potential concern that different schools within the University could exercise their own discretion regarding breaks, leaving students to carve out time in their already packed schedules. 

“It would be ideal for these breaks to fall on a Monday or Friday, so students have that extended weekend to catch up on assignments or ideally, take a mental health day,” Holmes said.

Some students feel that the shorter breaks throughout the semester will not be as effective as a traditional spring break since they won’t allow enough time to wholly de-stress and relax. Smith said that the University’s culture can often feel competitive, and it can sometimes be hard for students to remember to take time for themselves. 

“I don’t think having a day here and there will have that much of an impact…because of the culture here I think it will be more like catch-up days than restful days,” Smith said. 

Aries-Praud said that she is also concerned that students will feel pressure to catch up on assigned work during these shorter breaks, and worries that her mental health will decline during the semester. 

“It’ll just be another day to do work,” Aries-Praud said. “I don’t think anyone will take it off completely. Having an extended semester online like that without a break is going to be tough on mental health.” 

While the University has not released any specific information about what the shorter breaks will entail, students are hoping professors will honor these days off and not assign new work in lieu of class. 

“I think professors should let people have an actual day off,” Shuster said. 

John Mason, an associate professor in the history department, echoed students’ concerns about the lack of Spring Break, agreeing that shorter breaks throughout the semester may not be as effective as the normal break in terms of de-stressing. 

“I certainly understand the University’s concerns … [but] even if we scatter one or two days over the semester, it won’t do what a break will do, which is give students time to relax,” Mason said. “To truly be effective, to give students a genuine break, it has to be longer.”

Mason also acknowledged that this year has been “extraordinary,” and that, aside from the pandemic, added pressures such as the uncertainty of the upcoming election may have students feeling more stressed than usual. 

Mason said that even two or three days could be more effective than one. Like students, Mason said that if professors decide to give work or projects, then that would “defeat the point” of having a day off. Two or three days off would give students a chance to catch up on work but also to relax. 

“University leaders continue to emphasize the importance of basic preventive practices, and U.Va. will stand ready to adjust its plans as conditions dictate,” according to the update from Magill.