Summer Term is Extending COVID-19 Burnout

As the pandemic subsides across the country, most college students are home for summer break. Some are taking the opportunity to spend time with family, others are traveling or beginning in-person internships. Professors exhausted from asynchronous classes are transitioning into research, and administrators are taking a long-needed break, before settling in and planning for the fall semester. Classrooms are empty, offices are locked, and campuses breathe a sigh of relief. 

That is, of course, with the notable exception of Oberlin College. 

Thanks to the three-semester plan, instead of embracing the chance to relax after a nightmarish year characterized by COVID-19, second- and third-year students are grinding through coursework, faculty are spending their summer weekends grading papers and exams, and administrators are forced to show up to work every day so that the institution can keep running. Across the board, the Oberlin community is blisteringly burnt out. 

We recognize that if COVID-19 was still raging across the country with the same ferocity as past months — which very well could have been the case — the three-semester plan would feel more essential than it does now. Inarguably, the three-semester plan was an extremely innovative way to de-densify campus while allowing us to have our in-person liberal arts experience; we’re grateful for that. However, this does not excuse the inability of the College over the past two semesters to plan a summer term that would reduce the burden upon its community.

The College knew that the Oberlin community had concerns about the summer semester. Students have actively voiced their criticisms of the three-semester plan, and the Review conducted a detailed survey on this subject; third-years were especially worried given that they must be enrolled in four consecutive semesters without a proper summer break. We understand that the early days of the pandemic necessitated swift and assertive decisions. But, with the worst behind us, the administration can no longer justify unilateral decision-making.

There are a few straightforward changes to the academic calendar that would have greatly helped the student body and faculty. For example, during the summer semester, there is no mid-semester week off between the first and second module, meaning that students go through the chaos of midterms without a break in-between. We could take one week from the four-week break between summer and fall and place it in the middle of summer, giving students a mid-semester break. This change would not have delayed fall semester or affected first-year enrollment any more than the current plan does. And it would have greatly reduced the snowballing of academic stress that students can see is just around the corner.

Students aren’t the only ones who are suffering. Professors, especially younger ones paving their way in their respective fields, rely on the summer as a time to work on research and build their professional base. In our current situation, Oberlin faculty have already lost two summers to extenuating circumstances surrounding COVID-19. Not only does that hinder the careers of our faculty, but it also means that within the realm of higher education, Oberlin simply isn’t producing novel research at the pace of peer institutions.

We say all of this knowing that administrators are also overworked. The non-stop flurry of crises and challenges thrown their way were certainly not easy to deal with, and everyone has been working their utmost to do a good job. Many administrators have also been stuck working through all three semesters, running programs and offices essential to the operation of the College. While administrative work typically continues over the summer, it is undoubtedly more demanding while students are on campus. We imagine that this strain has taken a toll on administrators, much as it has on every other member of the Oberlin community.

But the truth is, summer semester did not have to be this exhausting. The College could have listened to their community, created a larger gap between spring and summer semester, or added in a proper break after the first module. They could have spoken more with faculty and sought to accommodate their needs, and centered the voices of mental health professionals in their decision-making process. Besides the occasional email instructing the community to take care of its mental health, few programs, institutional support systems, or feedback mechanisms have been instituted. We may have succeeded in limiting the spread of COVID-19 on our campus, but the cost of this success did not have to be widespread burnout. Safety from COVID-19 and sustainable mental health do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

Simply put: give us a break. You can do it; you’ve literally made a semester out of thin air. You made the rules, you set the terms with each decision you made without including the voices of those affected, and that makes you capable of skipping past the bureaucracy and just helping us succeed. Together, we faced the threat of a highly contagious virus, and we can now proudly boast of phenomenally low cases. COVID-19 was an impossible mountain, and yet the College hurdled it — so why is solving widespread dissatisfaction and burnout so difficult?

What this community needs from the administration is an open ear, a commitment to supporting its people, and evidence that they’re actively working to address our concerns. Too many decisions this past year have been made hurriedly and behind closed doors. To students who have been praised for their “sacrifice” for staying home during off-semesters, or faculty and administrators whose lives have been thoroughly disrupted by a summer semester, this opacity is frustrating. It undermines the community trust that the College has relied upon to adapt during COVID-19. We’ve learned over the past 16 months that institutions with complex administrative structures can bend the rules to solve a problem. We know that our school has the capacity to think innovatively and to create comprehensive COVID-precautions and flagship programs in a matter of months. Stop hiding behind bureaucracy, and show this community that the College cares for its well-being before all else. We’re no longer confident that this is true. Prove us wrong.