Macalester has joined a host of colleges that have cut down on spring break in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Dec. 22, Macalester students, staff and faculty received an email informing them that their spring break has been shortened from five days to three days in order to minimize student travel that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19 on campus. The new dates of spring break this semester will be Sunday, March 14 – Wednesday, March 17.
In place of a week-long spring break, the college is redistributing the lost days as wellness days throughout the semester, in addition to the two wellness days that the college had previously added. Each module will have two wellness days, adding up to four three-day weekends throughout the semester.
Provost Karine Moe said that senior staff at Macalester chose to shorten spring break for two main reasons: principally, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by discouraging travel, as well as to allow for flexibility if and when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available for students, faculty and staff during the semester.
“We have been told that, should the vaccines become available for our campus, we will have relatively short notice,” wrote Moe in a message to The Mac Weekly. “Limiting travel over break increases the likelihood that we will be able to quickly ramp up vaccinations, should they become available during that week.”
Several students took to Twitter to express their disappointment in the decision. In particular, students were disappointed that the decision was made without input from students themselves. The spring break decision came soon after the results of an Educational Policy and Governance (EPAG) committee survey were made public, in which the majority of faculty and students said that managing stress has been more difficult with the module system and learning more challenging.
“I think people are scared, because we saw how detrimental [the module system] was in the first half of the school year,” Ayana Smith-Kooiman ’22 said.
Smith-Kooiman and Amy Vandervelde ’21* drafted a petition that called on Macalester’s administration to restore students’ spring break, citing concerns about mental health. However, on Jan. 22, the petition added a note: “While this document began as a petition to reevaluate the spring break decision, it now stands as a community commitment to better prioritize mental health and wellbeing at Macalester.” The authors changed the intent of the petition because senior administrators made it clear that they would not consider restoring a week-long spring break.
As of the time of publication, the petition has 56 signatures from students and one signature from a faculty member. Smith-Kooiman said she chose to make the petition because she felt that Macalester senior staff were ignoring concerns from students about their well-being.
“It’s not like it’s a mystery about how we feel about these things,” Smith-Kooiman said. “We were vocal about how mental health has taken a hit.”
Several faculty members, too, tweeted their disappointment about the decision on Twitter.
“What’s the word for missing a 5-day spring break that hasn’t even happened yet, as it’s now been replaced with a long weekend where you will condense grading and prepping into 40% less time?” assistant professor of environmental science Mary Heskel wrote.
While Heskel said that she understands why senior staff decided to shorten spring break to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she noted that it is “not an ideal outcome” for faculty. She had hoped to use the week of spring break to prepare for her module 4 courses and will now have to do so with less time.
“I know they’re making this from public health concerns, so I can’t argue with the need to keep a population that you’re responsible for healthy,” Heskel said.
The decision to cut back spring break seems to be set in stone. In light of concerns about student well-being, Macalester Student Government Vice PresidentShreya Nagdev ’22 drafted a series of recommendations for professors for mitigating student stress. She, too, was disappointed that senior staff decided to cut back on spring break without any input from students.
“I wish admin had the capacity to talk with student leaders about it,” Nagdev said. “They might have still come to the same conclusion, but it would have been more informed and it also would have given the students more say in this decision… Maybe there wouldn’t have been as much anger.”
Nagdev worked with Professor of Psychology and Director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching Joan Ostrove to draft the recommendations, which include guidelines such as “avoid having large assignments due the day after a rest day” and “incorporate days without synchronous class meetings into the syllabus.”
Nagdev and Ostrove both expressed optimism that faculty will remain mindful of student well-being and mental health.
“I have spoken to many professors who are deeply committed to and concerned about student well-being,” Ostrove wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “I know many colleagues have been working hard to re-think their courses and readjust assignments and workload, and I expect that will continue.”
The added wellness days provide a needed reprieve for students struggling with the increased pace of the module system. But the loss of spring break, a pattern among higher educational institutions aiming to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, still comes as a blow to some students and faculty in an already fraught year.
“We’ve all been dreading coming back [for second semester] because on top of the modules, we know we’re only getting these wellness days and a few breaks,” Smith-Kooiman said.
*Amy Vandervelde is an opinion and copy editor at The Mac Weekly.