Spring break is often a hallmark of the college experience with students traveling together, visiting friends and family, volunteering and participating in other social activities. But in a school year like no other, the University has had to make adjustments to the regular academic calendar. For the spring of 2021, the University decided to forgo the typical spring break to reduce travel in favor of four “break days” scattered throughout the semester on Feb. 17, March 9, March 29 and April 15.
The University announced in October that the semester would be starting later than anticipated, and additionally, there would be four scattered break days as opposed to five consecutive days off. As stated in a Return to Grounds email update on Oct. 29, the break days are “offered to allow undergraduate students and faculty to rest and recharge from their academic work.”
This unconventional approach for an unconventional year has had mixed responses from a variety of students. While some students are able to utilize the wellness days as a break from school, some students have used these days as a time to catch up on work or complete work ahead. However, what a student can do on these break days may be limited depending on their year and living situation, as first years are not allowed cars on Grounds and students living in University housing are unable to have other students over.
For students, while the days are meant to be a break, there doesn’t appear to be consistent guidelines on how both students and professors are treating the break days. Many students, such as first-year Architecture student Liz Reese, have commented on the difficulties of taking a day off of schoolwork to focus solely on wellness in the middle of the school week.
“I think they’re extra study days, an extra catch-up-on-work day, [so] I never see them as a day I can truly rest because I have the same amount of homework that I have during a normal week,” Reese said. “I know people who have a test the day after the break day, so how do you not use the break day to study for your test?”
While it may be difficult to turn attention away from schoolwork, some students have successfully used their break days as a time to focus on relaxation. Second-year College student Silas Mathew shares how he spent his first wellness day on Feb. 17 focusing on taking a break from schoolwork and making use of the time to go outside and socialize with his housemates.
“I use it for life-giving culture,” Mathew said. “For me, I get enthralled in [the competitive culture of U.Va.] without even noticing, so I use the days to slow down. I’ll exercise, I’ll go on a run with at least some of my housemates, we’ll play basketball — [taking] time to be intentional with my house.”
However, there are some students who are not able to be in a living situation with many housemates to socialize with during the wellness days. For first-year students living in dorms for the first time, a lack of transportation and COVID-19 restrictions mean wellness days may confine dorm residents to their rooms.
With updated restrictions March 11 relaxing gathering limits to six people indoors and a four-person limit per table in dining halls, it is slightly easier for those in dorms to fully enjoy a wellness day with friends the same way students in different living situations may do.
“[First years] live in dorms and you can’t really go to other people’s dorms, so you can’t go hang out at their dorms, and we don’t have car[s] so if we wanted to go anywhere we’d have to Uber,” Reese said. “[So we] might as well do some homework.”
The break days have not only changed how students approach the semester, but have also affected the way that professors schedule their classes. Since break days occur only one day a week, for courses with more than one section which occur on different days processors had to navigate scheduling when some of their courses may miss a class day while others do not.
“Because I teach a class with 33 lab sections, it was challenging to plan around break days,” Jessamyn Manson, who teaches Introduction to Biology, said. “To keep our course on track, we created shorter lab activities during break day weeks and alternative times to complete lab activities. We are also providing our usual week off of lab activities for all students in March.”
While some students dislike the way the wellness days break up their week by being scheduled on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, others comment on how this odd break in the week allows a nice, short period to recollect themselves during consecutive days of a stressful school session. For students like fourth-year College student Dorothy Castelly, this mid-week break has been a nice way for her to break up the typical grind and make the most of the short gap in a five-day school week.
“I like having break days ... because it’s ... like a mini-weekend in the middle of the week,” Castelly said. “I have more time to do work, I can sleep in and enjoy the day with friends instead of stressing all five days of the school week.”
Some students are a fan of break days like Mathew, students like Reese would have preferred a spring break and others like third-year College student Abigail Kiss hope the University can find a way to combine the two in the future. For Kiss, these break days have the potential to allow students to care for their mental health, a crucial component for a successful semester.
“Your mental health is important,” Kiss said. “If that’s out of whack then it makes everything else harder physically, educationally, spiritually.”
Mathew also notes that these wellness days can be used as great productive rest periods, as opposed to spring break which may bring a complete lack of motivation and productivity.
“Wellness days have the right balance of stuff that needs to be done,” Mathew said. “I don’t get a chance to have passive rest, where I’m just sitting and binging on everything, but I can have intentional rest where I’m doing things that bring me joy, that’ll set me up. I’m not working towards the wellness day, I’m working from the wellness day.”
Both professors and students are in the midst of circumstances that they aren’t used to and have had to make adjustments because of it.
“We all need a bit of a break during a tough semester and I’m glad that a strategy was devised to help students step back from the academic demands of the semester, even if it is just for a day,” Manson said.
While students have different experiences and opinions on the wellness days, most agree that it’s a good idea to provide students with some sort of break to recharge during the semester. Kiss has some advice for fellow students as they continue to navigate this new concept of wellness days and how to use them.
“My advice is to allow yourself to relax every once in a while because a lot of people get it in their head that they need to go-go-go to be the next best thing, and in order to be accomplished and be great, but I believe we were created to rest,” Kiss said. “So rest, enjoy the now, take a break.”