This time last year, Duke students could be found sprinkled across the globe for fall break, enjoying dinners with family, or simply unwinding from a hectic semester. This year, the reality on campus is much different: Students in face masks and jackets hide away in the libraries (until 11pm) and dorms, stressing about their 3-hour lecture videos and debating whether to report symptoms from their Zoom-induced headaches. Unlike previous years when students were greeted with a relaxing hiatus from school work and stress upon completion of their midterms, on May 29th, the Duke administration announced the decision to proceed with the fall semester without any form of break or holiday weekend. The implications of this decision have become all the more apparent over the last two grueling months of hybrid and online classes. Without the typical milestones of parent’s weekend and fall break, many students feel trapped like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” replaying the same daily routine for months on end.
The lack of fall break does not constitute the primary stressor on campus; rather, it has exacerbated pre-existing student stress from coronavirus-induced adjustments to Duke academic and campus life. The fact that underclassmen have remained on campus is no small feat, and Duke has hosted webinars and other events to promote student mental health through organizations like Neurocare. Regardless, the Chronicle Editorial Board believes that Duke still needs to address and publicize more solutions to the unique mental health needs that the student body faces this semester. Although obviously necessary, the strict social distancing guidelines deprive students, particularly the first-years, of the opportunity to form meaningful emotional connections with their peers. In year’s past, the grind of a tough course load or the stress of taking on too many extracurricular activities was mitigated by the intense friendship people formed in the midst of the stress. That is severely absent from the Class of 2024. This, compounded with the majority of classes and club meetings being held online, pushes students to cope with their stress in isolation.
The impact of online classes on students’ mental health is well-documented, but Duke’s response to the effect of the virtual semester on student well-being has been rather lackluster. While the Duke administration has promoted resources that discuss mental health, they haven’t taken concrete steps to address the root causes of these stressors. The most obvious effect of the switch to digital modes of communication is “Zoom fatigue,” which encapsulates the consequences of spending hours engaged in online discussions and lectures. Psychologists attribute this fatigue to the lack of nonverbal cues on Zoom calls that we typically rely on during face to face interactions. Physically, students also experience screen headaches from spending hours on online classes and even more studying.
Furthermore, the sheer number of platforms that different professors use for communication becomes overwhelming; Zoom links and pertinent information often get lost in an online abyss of DUU emails and Sakai notifications. As clubs have also moved operations online, students find little respite from the screen. Once a place to meet like-minded peers, club meetings are now another extension of the tiresome school day. And, despite the misconception that online classes have created more free time for students, many Duke students feel particularly inundated in class work and extracurricular activities this year.
Further worsening the mental toll of this semester, dorm rooms have also taken on the exhausting function of classrooms, study spaces, club meeting rooms, dining rooms, hang-out rooms and most importantly bedrooms. Thus, it is difficult for students to maintain a separation between work and relaxation. The mental association of work and sleep spaces can have detrimental impacts on sleep, and this lack of separation is also shown to impact productivity and motivation. By locking buildings and keeping the library closed during weekends and after 11 p.m., Duke has created an environment where students lack appropriate spaces to complete their augmented workload. Duke must recognize that our physical health is equally as important as our mental health. The administration must take a proactive approach to combat the social and emotional consequences of online learning and social distancing policies.
Although breaks do constitute necessary periods of growth and relaxation, we recognize that it may not be feasible to add mental health days to the academic calendar this semester. Nevertheless, it is essential that the administration considers following the lead of other universities in incorporating mental health days into the spring semester schedule. In the meantime, we propose the following recommendations:
- Create more socially distanced places on campus where students can lounge, study and log into class. As the weather gets colder, increased access to indoor study spaces is particularly essential.
- Recognize that students face numerous challenges this semester–the transition to online classes for freshmen, navigating clubs online, potential moving in and out of quarantine spaces, etc. – and do more to address their strains on mental health.
- Create pandemic-appropriate academic policies—such as assignment-blackout days—by working closely with student representatives.
- Create more in-person socially distanced opportunities for students to leave their rooms and engage with the Duke community.
We Duke students are resilient, passionate about learning, and invested in the Duke community. However, we need the Duke administration to take an active role in supporting student mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of the Chronicle. Their column runs on alternate Mondays.
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