Without Breaks, Students Struggle to Sustain Engaged Learning

Current students have never before experienced an Oberlin October without a fall break — and we don’t want to whine, but it’s harder than we expected. While normally midterms would be followed by a week-long chance to relax and regroup, this year we moved right along to another week of classes. If Oberlin Twitter these past few days is any indication, student burnout is a mounting concern. 

Students enrolled this fall won’t catch a break until Thanksgiving, at which point many of us will need to pack up our rooms and travel elsewhere — in a pandemic — before getting a few brief days off from courses. While we’re all capable of continuing on without a fall break, the encroaching fatigue of this semester indicates a need for thoughtfulness about the stamina students are being asked for in the future — especially third-years, who will spend January 2021 through May 2022 in school, with just a two-week break between each semester. 

Students at Oberlin value deep and rigorous education; not to mention, going to school here is expensive. No student wants to advocate for easier classes or for minimal time in the classroom. But it behooves administrators and faculty to be cognizant of this year’s many challenges, in our studies and especially outside of them, and to start now — midway through our first of three semesters. There is still plenty of time to formulate thoughtful and compassionate initiatives and plans to mitigate burnout so that students can engage and gain from this academic year. 

For the most part, Oberlin students understand the pressure that the administration was put under in trying to re-envision college life during a pandemic. We’re grateful to go to a school where administrators put together such a thoughtful and careful plan, and we’re grateful for the innovation that it took to concoct the three-semester schedule. Even still, now might be a good time to begin discussing some potential tweaks — a conversation that could be had between students, faculty, and administrators alike. 

We know that the vast majority of working adults do not get summer vacation — but going to school is not the same as a nine-to-five by any stretch of the imagination. In addition to managing full course loads, many Oberlin students work jobs on and off campus. This, combined with a plethora of extracurricular activities, means that being at college to some extent means always being on — ready to pivot from work to school, able to stay up late and wake up early, and spend weekends getting everything in order for the following week. Students on campus never get a break from being at school; they live and work in the same spaces, making it hard to unwind. College is an intense environment. Third-years who must cram the final two years of their education into one marathon year and a half have a lot of work cut out for them.  

It’s also important to recognize that this week hasn’t just been trying because of the usual stressors around work and time management. On Tuesday night, we learned that after weeks of zero identified cases, six members of the College community had tested positive for COVID-19 in one afternoon. While we knew that this day was likely to come, and an email from President Ambar the following day reflected optimism around contact tracing efforts, the positive tests are a stark reminder that the virus is still here to stay, that this campus is not a bubble, and that vigilance behooves us all, especially as it gets colder and we spend more time indoors.

Students are also mailing in their ballots, making voting plans, and preparing for one of the most daunting elections in memory. The stakes of this election are incredibly high for many on campus, and this year, tensions around voter suppression are running especially high. When faculty members discuss these issues openly with students, it can alleviate some of the burden of carrying these political concerns in addition to students’ personal stressors. Student Senate’s recent request that students be given time off for Election Day is also an important acknowledgement of the intersection between students’ academic lives and real-world concerns — recognizing that students’ civic duty is not separate from their time spent in class, but that these realities exist together. In a year marked by so much unrest and unprecedented academic burdens, we need this kind of grace more than ever. 

Every one of us is grappling with the existential realities of a deadly virus, and a president who might refuse to leave office even if voters elect Biden. This year is both politically and personally exhausting, and during the pandemic we have all lost our routinized methods of escape. In fact, many of those activities are dangerous right now — the decision to eliminate breaks is no doubt partially motivated by a desire to limit off-campus travel, or stave off the potential for visitors and parties during downtime. We trust one another to be thoughtful here. And we ask that administrators and faculty look to other schools — which have offered more three-day weekends and other smaller breaks — to consider less risky ways to mitigate students’ personal and academic exhaustion. 

We want faculty and administrators to know that students are tired and will continue to be tired in the semesters to come, as months of schoolwork with minimal time off accumulate. We know that the three-semester plan took a great deal of imagination, investment, and innovation, and we’re grateful. We also hope that the administration will encourage students to rest and rejuvenate so that we can weather the challenges of these coming months. Students returned under the three-semester plan because we love our school and our campus; but we also need the energy to put our best work in and to get our best results from this college experience.