Despite student pushback, Penn will not have fall break this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and will not make any adjustments to its fall 2020 calendar to accommodate the additional two days of classes.
University administration originally canceled the Oct. 1 to Oct. 4 break in a June 25 email to the Penn community outlining its plans for a hybrid semester with on-campus living, citing the "inherent disease transmission risks associated with travel to and from campus." When the University backtracked to an entirely remote semester in mid-August, however, there was no mention of reinstating the break, prompting a student-created petition that has garnered over 500 signatures. The petition calls for a "mental break" amid a semester of Zooming.
"The University decided to cancel fall break due to concerns about the possibility of increased incidence of COVID-19 in our community as students travel from campus and Philadelphia for the break," Associate Vice Provost of Education and Academic Planning Gary Purpura wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "Though we have strict expectations concerning travel detailed in the Student Compact, we anticipated that some people would view a mini-break from classes as too good an opportunity for travel to pass up."
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP that faculty began planning their classes in June when Penn announced the adjusted calendar without fall break, and the decision not to bring students back to campus did not change the schedule of classes, which is generally finalized three years in advance.
For many students, fall break is used as a time to catch up on schoolwork and study for midterm exams, which typically fall either immediately before or after the long weekend. For others, the break would have been used to spend time with friends and family — away from a screen.
College junior Isabella Cossu, who is the DP opinion photo editor, started the petition with her friends on Sept. 10 out of frustration that students would not receive a mental break from classes, which she said is especially necessary during a semester in which students are constantly staring at computer screens and stuck inside.
"It's asking a lot of us to just go continuously for three months straight," she said. "It's one thing if we were going straight through and we were ending quicker, but we're going straight through and it's not really speeding up any sort of process."
Cossu pointed to studies showing that increased screen time has had adverse effects on people's mental and physical well-being.
While all seven other Ivy League institutions either have at least one day off in the middle of the semester, a week-long Thanksgiving break, or both, Penn's fall semester only features a four-day Thanksgiving break.
Psychiatry and psychology experts at Penn believe it is crucial for students to take breaks from technology, describing fall break as an unfortunate, lost opportunity to do so amid a Zoom-heavy semester.
Dr. Thea Gallagher, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and clinic director of the Outpatient Clinic at the Perelman School of Medicine Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, said the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the line between work and home for many people, citing preliminary pandemic research findings of a three-hour increase to the average American workday.
She added that college students have additional stressors from balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and a social life.
"This technology fatigue is really palpable, and [although] it was there before, we had ways to break it up, and spaces and places to be away from our technology," she said. "We have to really be intentional about how much time we're spending on these devices and what we're using them for, and making sure there's a separation between working and our self-care time."
Gallagher said she understands the University's rationale but believes it is unfortunate that students have to sacrifice an opportunity for a break from technology in a time when they need it most.
"We are being overloaded, cognitively and emotionally, significantly more than in times past, because we don't have the same protective factors in place, and people are citing more mental health challenges, so it would be great if there was a way for people to take a break from school and also to not travel and increase the risk of COVID-19," she said.
For Chowdhury, it is not just the additional screen time that warrants the break, but also the increase in classwork as a result of entirely virtual learning.
"Professors seem to think that because we are 'at home' and 'not engaging with in-person social life,' we have extra time, so they have increased their readings and assignments," Chowdhury said. "We are in a fully virtual platform that is emotionally draining, mentally sucking the soul out of most people around me that I know of."
College junior Claire Medina added that not canceling class on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 does not necessarily prevent students from traveling and possibly infecting the West Philadelphia community any other weekend.
"I don't think anyone who wanted to travel was stopped by fall break being canceled, and I doubt there are people for whom fall break would be the deciding factor in going somewhere," they said. "I don't think there is any significant public health argument for why fall break should remain off the table."
While Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the Psychology Department, said daily screen breaks are necessary to avoid eye strain and headaches, she believes simply needing a break from technology does not make for a strong case to reinstate fall break.
"There might well be other reasons that fall break is important to student well-being, but they would be offset by the likelihood that students would (foolishly) travel or congregate in groups," Hunt wrote to the DP.
College sophomore Eashan Sahai, however, said students should be trusted to decide how they spend the much-needed break.
"I think for the most part, Penn students care about the community around them and don't want to get other people sick, and if they've been respecting that now, they're going to continue to respect that through fall break," Sahai said.
Chowdhury said particularly given the additional challenges of remote learning, Penn should grant students a few days to prioritize self-care and their mental health.
"People living with their family members are dealing with so many great challenges at home that two days of break would allow them an opportunity to just get things in order, because this virtual reality is a game of catching up," she said.
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