Story by Elizabeth Walztoni, Editor-in-chief
Photo courtesy pexels.com
As Aquinas College enters its second year of pandemic instruction, students, faculty and staff express the stress they feel. Fall and spring breaks have been removed; some learn and teach virtually, and many still struggle to adjust. Some professors say they can tell their students are tired. Students repeatedly brought concerns to their Senators about feeling burnout and being overwhelmed.
“It was a common thread throughout our meetings,” said Josie Gonzalez, Senate Vice Chair.
The group decided to draft a petition asking faculty and administration to implement mandated wellness days. These would involve a complete cancellation of all classes on selected days throughout the semester. Although professors were already encouraged by the Provost, Dr. Stephen Germic, to implement breaks into their schedules beginning in the fall, these accommodations were not enforced at the administrative level.
Numerous area colleges of comparable size to Aquinas have implemented school-wide wellness days throughout their semesters to replace a spring break, including Hope College, Cornerstone University, Albion College, and the University of Michigan Dearborn.
Student Senate wrote in their petition: “Mental health is a serious issue and has been a continuous strain on all of us, especially in this time of the pandemic. With the structure of our academic calendar this semester, it is unrealistic to expect full performance from students without much needed breaks.”
This petition closed with an urge to implement changes to the academic schedule.
The petition’s path took a different route than most issues brought before the faculty by Senate. In most cases, the Senate Academic Affairs Director speaks to the Provost, who then contacts faculty.
Dr. Germic was unavailable until April, according to Gonzalez. Instead, Senate sent the letter to Kyle Hull, Chair of the Faculty Assembly, to streamline the process.
Gonzalez and Senate Chair Hannah Lashbrook composed the petition; their Executive Board proofread and sent it out for all senators to sign.
The subject was discussed at length during the March 17 Faculty Assembly. Professors raised concerns about implementing sudden changes in their syllabi over halfway through the semester. Of particular focus were classes with lab sections meeting on different days of the week, meaning that, for example, a Monday wellness day would give a break to Monday’s lab students but not for Thursday’s. Some faculty worried that trimming their class content in an already condensed semester would impact their students’ education. Others raised the point that long weekends might result in students traveling away from campus and spreading the virus.
As time ran out, the assembly voted to pass a modified resolution reading:
“Faculty who have not given a wellness day are strongly encouraged to give a day off between March 22 – April 1. Faculty are strongly encouraged to minimize student requirements over the Easter Break.” This resolution does not mandate specified collegewide wellness days, and leaves their inclusion to the discretion of individual professors.
“I feel like [the petition] was received graciously by the faculty assembly,” said Dr. Gretchen Rumohr of the English Department. “I didn’t hear anyone say ‘These concerns are not valid,’ or ‘I will not do that’…it really became a question of ‘How will we make sure that these students are being heard and their needs are being met?'”
Rumohr also noted that adjusting class schedules this late in the semester actually places additional stress on professors.
Still, “I definitely am a fan of the mandated wellness days,” she said. “Having administrative support for that idea helps us figure out where our energies should lie, and it does a great job of minimizing confusion.”
Senate and the Assembly plan to revisit the subject before the Fall 2021 semester to “make sure there are adequate breaks” with administrative support for both students and faculty, according to Gonzalez.
For the remainder of this spring semester, Senate intends to share information about the resolution “as much as possible” and encourages students who have not received wellness days or alleviated workloads from their professors to reach out.
“You should not be afraid to ask about it,” Gonzalez said.