Officials should address student burnout problem

Students are exhausted. With the transition back to campus and lingering dangers of the pandemic leaving many students experiencing burnout, the natural instinct is to look toward the next respite from the grind. In past years, students hanging by a thread could look to a few days off for fall break to catch up and restore themselves. But not this year. Amid unique stressors, fall break is just one day – and it’s a Friday, a day that many students don’t have classes anyway. That’s not a real break and will not help students lower their berserk stress levels.

Obviously, the problem of students being overworked goes beyond getting short-changed on fall break – and fall break isn’t the one solution, either. But students are demonstrably struggling right now, and the University can and should still take steps to give students just a little bit more breathing room.

It’s been a long, stressful road navigating the change from in-person learning to virtual learning and then back to in-person learning since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Needless to say, students have made several major adjustments to both our academic and social lives. Many of us have also experienced the grief that COVID-19 has inflicted on the world close to home.

Coming back to school hasn’t been the reprieve many of us expected, either. Many of us were taking classes from our childhood bedrooms, daydreaming about how much more social we were going to be once classes were on campus again. But now that we’ve made it, the reality is slightly different. After all, waking up at 7:59 a.m. and still being early to an 8 a.m. virtual class is a stark contrast from how much more time it takes to get ready for in-person learning.

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Socializing is also back in full swing but with several caveats. Many of us have varying levels of comfort regarding coronavirus. It’s fair to say none of us quite know where the balance between satiating our social appetites while still being safe from coronavirus sits at the moment. Masks add another layer of stress to the process of finding that balance. Not seeing each other’s full faces when hanging out, or restricting hang out spots to outdoor settings when it comes to new people, is enough of a burden to resist widening one’s social circle. And because most of us have experienced limited social interactions since March 2020, we’re relearning how to socialize, which also takes a toll. After more than a year of waiting for normalcy, we’re still not there yet. What used to be small, even joyous efforts like hanging out with a new person, or taking the time to pick out and wear a nice outfit to class, are draining us faster because our in-person engines are just beginning to start back up after months of being turned off.

The point is, students are demonstrably burnt out. All of these little things – readjusting to talking in a classroom, deciphering faces without masks on and the other aforementioned challenges – would be pretty benign on their own. But in aggregate, they take a toll on students’ bandwidth. None of this is necessarily administrators’ fault. But the fact that so many students are exhausted to the bone right now indicates that the University should do something – and fortunately, it has the capacity to take a handful of small steps that would make a big difference.

Giving students a meaningful break in the middle of the semester would be an incredible first step. Current seniors will remember 2018’s four-day fall break, with the University designating a Monday and Tuesday as days off. Since many people have Fridays off, that made a break that was brief on paper feel even longer. Those two days would be invaluable time to catch up on REM sleep or catch up on work. It could also make it easier for students to see family – especially family who students could not see a few months ago because the pandemic was worse at that point.

While it might be too late to make that happen this semester, the University is still well within its rights and powers to institute wellness days or something to that effect at one or more times between now and finals season in December. And it could do that for the spring, too – the University has complete control over class scheduling, we promise no one would complain if administrators picked a random Monday in November and told the student body to take a day for its own well-being.

GW would not be the first to take this step. Peer schools like Boston University and the University of Southern California implemented “wellness days” as a relief valve for students’ stress and burnout. Nor are GW students alone in calling for this to happen – students at the University of Maryland, College Park have also been calling for wellness days to be sprinkled in throughout the semester.

Non-scheduled mental health days are key here too. Students who are burnt out to the point of needing a non-scheduled day to recuperate should also not have to worry about it tanking their grades. While many professors are lenient and understanding when it comes to missing class once or twice, others take a hardline approach. Students who are struggling should not need to beg their professors to let them take a day for their mental health, nor should they have to go through the phenomenal hassle of getting Disability and Support Services accommodations. Do-or-die attendance policies are about punishment, not pedagogy – and it’s inappropriate to make students drag themselves to class mid-anxiety attack for fear of their grade being bumped down. GW already asks professors to be flexible with attendance because of the pandemic, but that’s not enough – it should prohibit mandatory attendance policies in classes, at least for the time being.

Burnout is not trivial – it isn’t laziness, it isn’t a refusal to work hard and it isn’t something that people can just power through. In the interest of everyone’s well-being and academic success, GW should take these small, meaningful steps to help students rejuvenate. Doing so would make a huge difference and allow students to make the most out of their GW experience.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.

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