Staff Editorial: University spring 2021 plan leaves students in the dark
Lacking specificity and ignoring international students, the plan fails
On Oct. 26, American University announced information about AU’s spring 2021 semester operating status. The semester will begin a week late on Jan. 19 and will expand courses in areas like the sciences, arts, media and select others to meet in-person, as reported by The Eagle. The announcement also included the expansion of on-campus housing for students and, notably, the cancellation of spring break. The majority of classes will remain online for the spring 2021 semester, with the University citing the trajectory of the coronavirus and “lessons” from other universities as factors in their decision-making process.
This announcement is upsetting at a minimum. After nearly a year living under the fear of COVID-19 and strain of online courses, telling students that the next semester will be more of the same is disheartening. No matter how an individual feels about the measures taken or not to handle the pandemic, there are not many people truly happy to continue taking online courses. While the health and safety of the student body is paramount, the disappointment still stings.
The student body deserved better from this announcement. Much of it is vague, with students across the United States unsure of whether or not to move to D.C. or how they will cope without a spring break. The University is worth praising for putting out some semblance of a plan relatively early in the semester, before course registration. But the lack of detail has left students wondering if another week or two would have benefitted not just the announcement’s detail, but professors who were given not much more than a week to prepare for either reality before registration — in person or online. The level of flexibility for students is also unclear. While students may feel some hope for in-person experiences, the announcement was extremely unclear on who benefits.
One section of our student community was glaringly absent from this initial announcement: international students. As a group of international students wrote in an op-ed for The Eagle, the struggle of taking classes online in their home countries has been detrimental to their education and mental health. Students who have to live opposite lives from their friends and families by staying up all night taking classes and sleeping all day, are suffering. To expect the same level of quality from all students no matter where they live is laughable at best and cruel at worst. Even the most understanding professors cannot compensate for a 12 hour time difference. The University must provide some in-person instruction so that new international students may come to or stay in the United States, not wait for policy from the Department of Homeland Security.
Those students living on the West Coast also have to deal with time differences, as their 8:10 a.m. courses have been turned into 5:10 a.m. courses. With no real understanding of what courses are online or not based on this announcement, students in various time zones are in a difficult planning position.
The housing section of this announcement was similarly vague. Housing is expanded, but for whom exactly? What would a “mini-mester” really look like, and who thought that was a clever term to use? To ask students to move in somewhere for only a handful of weeks seems absurd. Many students, especially freshmen, are living at home in situations that may be toxic, or are just becoming frustrated with feeling “stuck” in a hometown and with parents. The risk to the D.C. community by all students coming back is too great, but this proposal causes so much confusion. Not enough has been done to make freshmen and other students feel connected to campus. Resources like ASAC and the Writing Center are difficult to utilize for some under these circumstances. By providing socialization, primarily through more online programming, students are turning away due to the hours already spent in class.
The general feeling now is a simple plea: no more Zoom. Simultaneously, students want to feel connected. The University needs to think more creatively about how students can virtually build connections between each other and the University itself. There are no easy answers, but students cannot continue feeling adrift.
Online semesters have created a mental health burden on students. The isolation, workload and of course Zoom and screen fatigue have made daily life a challenge. There is no flippancy about the phrase “Zoom fatigue;” students are experiencing severe mental health challenges and potential burnout is high. With this announcement, the University took away what is the only break in the marathon of spring semesters. Professors and counselors can attest that often, students have more difficulty in the spring semester. While the University may find a way to incorporate breaks like three-day weekends, this doesn’t do enough. The logic of canceling spring break is flawed. If it is for physical health and lowered virus transmission, that makes little sense when many students will still be at home taking courses online. The physical and mental health risks and benefits need to be equally assessed, as the semester will be primarily online.
As this fall semester has shown, a break is absolutely necessary. The burden many students are under right now will not be better in the spring. A real break, longer than one day, where students can unwind is necessary to mental wellbeing. The University must find ways to alleviate the mental health challenges students are facing for the spring. While the Counseling Center cannot serve students outside the D.C. Metro area, due to licensing restrictions, a survey of how students are not only feeling, but the coping methods they are using could provide information to the University. There are ways to lower screen time on Zoom, perhaps even taking the radical step of reformatting the two-and-a-half hour block classes entirely.
No one can keep up another hellish online semester unless changes are made, especially since the weeklong spring break has been taken away. We hope that professors, who are seeing how much we have struggled daily, will advocate for us and themselves to get a break. We hope that AU Student Government also fulfills its role in advocating for the mental well-being of students. Clearly, students cannot continue to take the lead on this and always be the ones developing innovative ideas. The University could find ways to connect with students and implement changes. Students are suffering now, and will continue to if spring 2021 is treated again as if all is well. The University needs to be clear, concise and truly supportive.