Social distancing on campus

Students portray what classroom will look like while wearing a mask and social distancing as part of a setup photoshoot in the Humanities and Social Sciences Building on July 9.

Last week, an anonymous student posted a petition on calling for Chancellor Donde Plowman to give students a “Mental Health Break” before the last day of classes on Nov. 24.

Since then, the petition has gained close to 800 signatures from students who see a day off as a way for the university to make up for removing all breaks from the semester, a decision made to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“COVID has caused so much unrest, and on top of that our fall break was removed weeks into the semester,” the petition said.

“We're not performing at full capacity and this isn't the standard amount of stress. It feels like nearly everyday is a final exam day. Therefore, I think it is reasonable and fair to ask for one day off between Election Day and Thanksgiving Break. One day for us to have a mental health break and allow us to get off our laptops and breathe.”

The petition cites the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an institution where students successfully petitioned for a mental health day. UNC’s chancellor recommended that faculty give students a day off of classes on Oct. 9 as a way of supporting student health.

A month later, it seems that hundreds of UT students are at the end of their rope after 13 consecutive weeks of online school work without a break.

Kaitlyn Meadows, a junior studying ecology and evolutionary biology who signed the petition, says that the administration’s safety precautions, while well-intentioned, have negatively impacted students’ mental health.

“The decision to eliminate breaks for this semester was made to help keep us physically safe, but many students have faced severe mental health consequences,” Meadows said. “This not only affects our productivity and motivation to complete schoolwork, but it also deeply affects our personal lives and our overall health.”

Meadows, an SGA senator representing the College of Arts and Sciences, believes that a mental health day would help to prevent widespread burnout in the student body in the last few weeks of classes.

“Many students, like myself, are totally remote this semester, which means that most days are spent doing schoolwork while physically isolated from the rest of the UT community,” Meadows said.

“A mental health day would provide a much-needed mental break for students and faculty who have been pushing through an unprecedented semester despite the many obstacles along the way. For me, a mental health day would be an opportunity to recharge to finish out the semester without getting burned out.”

Tyler Sivels, a junior studying architecture, saw the petition on Twitter and was inspired to sign it because of the lack of breaks this semester. He believes that the main source of students’ mental health problems is a lack of understanding on the part of university leaders about the unique stresses facing students this semester.

“I would just tell the faculty and the people over everything that’s going on to think about how they would feel if they had to go to school constantly without any breaks while all this is going on in politics, the world and all the different changes that are happening,” Sivels said.

Sivels’ sentiment was echoed by many students who signed and commented on the petition. One signer went as far as to say that “student health shouldn’t be a joke to the faculty.”

For his part, Sivels would just like a day to either catch up on or take a break from work. In a semester that feels like one long day spent in front of a screen, hundreds of students seem to want a day where they can choose to simply walk away from it all and reclaim their mental health.

“Everybody’s just been really on edge about school work and when (my roommates) come home from class … they don’t want to worry about school at all, they don’t even want to think about it, but they have to,” Sivels said. “It’s just like a never-ending cycle.”

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