Story by Stephan Bisaha
WICHITA, Kansas — Spring break is canceled.
Public universities in Kansas made the call early in the fall as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. They reasoned that during a pandemic it’s just not a good idea to give students a week to spend in South Beach, or even just travel to see family.
Yet Kansas State University students said they need at least some time off because of another health crisis — the damage to their mental health posed by a semester without a pause. K-State agreed and scheduled a “wellness day” for the spring.
“Students are burnt out,” said K-State student Nathan Bothwell. “Learning is not going to happen in your classrooms if you don’t give people some sort of chance to have a reprieve and get a recharge.”
But faculty worry that giving students time off could further spread COVID-19 — essentially posing the same threat as a spring break. Some epidemiologists warn that multiple wellness days across a semester could be worse than a single week off.
The debate pits students asking for a breather against professors concerned about the community’s physical health.
In December, students tried for the second time to get the university’s faculty senate to support two wellness days. Faculty rejected the first proposal the month before.
The pandemic has worsened what some experts previously called a campus mental health epidemic. According to one survey, 25% of students said their depression increased significantly during the fall.
“Mental health issues have been increasing for college students in both prevalence and severity,” said Amy Gatto, a senior campus program manager with Active Minds, which advocates for student mental health. “Then you throw a global pandemic in there. It’s really exacerbating some of these mental health conditions.”
Students at least have the benefit of long breaks between semesters. K-State students just finished an extended six-week-long winter break.
But with spring break canceled, students face the prospect of a stress-packed, 16-week semester without a pause. Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Virginia and other schools have adopted wellness days to give students some time off in the middle of the week.
But K-State students didn’t ask for a Wednesday off. They wanted two three-day weekends to give students extra recovery time.
That’s what led to the opposition from professors. They warn long weekends will lead to students traveling, exactly the behavior that faculty wanted to avoid.
“Is there a good argument as to why the student health outweighs what we would be approving, which is an increase of the spread in COVID-19?” said K-State professor Brandon Savage.
The university’s Graduate Student Council also opposed the wellness days plan, arguing it would lead to big parties.
Epidemiologist Mindi DePaola with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research told K-State’s faculty senate that the two wellness days could be more dangerous than letting students have a spring break — two trips home might spread the virus more than one trip to the beach.
“I’m by no means saying spring break is safe, either, in this analysis,” said DePaola, whose father is a K-State professor and opposes the wellness days. “The bottom line is both two long weekends and spring break hold an extremely high amount of risk from a public health standpoint.”
Other epidemiologists agree that any time off for students risks spreading the coronavirus, but that depends on how much students travel.
“If everybody is going on a plane, flying to Fort Lauderdale, frolicking on the beach and in the bars — obviously that’s not a good idea,” said William Schaffner, a professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “If they’re just taking a break walking through the woods, maintaining their social distancing and their mask wearing, that sounds like a mental health break to me.”
K-State’s faculty compromised with students — instead of two Fridays without classes, students would get one on April 16. The university also encouraged professors to cancel a class to give students more time off.
Epidemiologists said one wellness day is safer than two, though any break still poses risks if students travel.
Many K-State professors remain uneasy giving any time off for students. But they support the compromise because they want to work with the students going into the spring semester. Professors said students met their end of the deal for an open campus in the spring — they wore masks, socially distanced and put up with tedious online lessons.
Faculty worry that if they completely dismissed student mental health worries, they might stop listening when it comes to the other coronavirus precautions.
“They feel very strongly about this, obviously,” said K-State professor Nathan Nelson. “And we want to enter the spring semester working with the students.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.