Despite college cancellations, Spring Festival

Observers seeing recent reports of crowds maskless young people, many of whom are believed to be college students, partying on Florida beaches for spring break may have had flashbacks to March 2020, when the scenes were much the same, a few just weeks after the coronavirus pandemic was declared and colleges were rushing together plans to keep potentially infected students off campus.

At the time, students were unaware of the risks posed by the virus or blatantly neglecting these risks, as they reveled in Miami and Daytona Beach. Some people may have been surprised to see the same behaviors repeated this year, despite the public knowing more about the virus and the new vaccines being given to people across the country. Experts tracking student behavior during the pandemic weren’t surprised at all, however.

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a leading expert on adolescent behavior, said students are currently getting mixed signals about whether it’s safe to remove some of the precautions the public has been told urged to follow during the pandemic. He noted recent statements by Greg Abbott of Texas and other governors that their states are “100 percent openand the lifting of mask mandates.

“Students are no more immune to these messages than anyone else,” Steinberg said. “Because of their age, they may be more likely to believe the good news, than the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said is an incorrect message. As far as what colleges can do, there isn’t much.

But this year, colleges have had at least several months to prepare and protect their campuses. Many have decided in advance to eliminate spring break and with it the possibility of students returning to campuses with a COVID-19 infection that could then spread to nearby communities.

Researchers tracking college pandemic response plans say the reality for the majority of students this year is not a traditional spring break week off. Nearly 60% of colleges have canceled spring break or offer students sporadic “wellness days” during the semester, while discouraging off-campus travel, said teaching practice professor Chris Marsicano. senior at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i.

The initiative, which tracks institutional responses to the pandemic, reviewed the spring break plans of nearly 2,000 colleges and universities, some of which had cancellations already announced from spring break to the 2020 fall semester. College welfare days ranged from scheduling long weekends in the academic calendar (about 23%) to canceling classes one or more days in the middle of the week (around 46%), Marsicano said in an email.

Anne Ridenhour, senior at Davidson and co-chief operating officer for C2i, said the spring break cancellations reflect a recognition by colleges that the student movement can increase the number of cases on campuses and in the communities around them. . A study published online in May 2020 and will soon be published as an article in the Urban Economics Journal used cellphone data and academic calendar information to suggest that spring break trips to Florida and New York last year increased the spread of COVID-19 as students returned to campuses.

Calendar changes by colleges have made it less likely that students will travel to popular spring break destinations this year, said Paul Niekamp, ​​an economics professor at Ball State University in Indiana and co. – author of the study on student travel. He suggested that some students might be immune to the virus if they had already recovered from it, and that some vulnerable people have been vaccinated, which was largely not the case last year. Still, it’s “not a good idea for students to travel for spring break,” Niekamp wrote in an email.

“There is always a risk of students bringing infections back to campus and causing outbreaks,” he said. “That being said, student policing behavior can be challenging, so it’s always a good idea to follow university and CDC policies on testing and quarantine upon returning to campus.”

Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, on Monday pleaded with Americans to avoid travel and remain vigilant about pandemic safety precautions. She noted in a White House Briefing that more than 1.3 million people traveled by plane on March 12, the most travelers the country has seen in a single day since the pandemic was declared last year.

“I know it’s tempting to want to relax and let our guard down, especially after a harsh winter that unfortunately saw the highest level of cases and deaths during the pandemic so far,” Walensky said. “We have seen images of people enjoying spring break festivities without masks. All this against the backdrop of another 50,000 cases a day. »

Ridenhour said colleges have had to weigh the ethical choice of canceling breaks to prevent the spread of the virus against the demands and desires of students having some kind of break from classes at a time when they are already stressed by the demands of attending college during the pandemic, feeling disconnected from friends, and changing their social lives and expectations of the college experience . Survey after survey of students show that their mental health suffers due to increased isolation, loneliness, loss of normality and grief caused by the death or illness of family members.

“You have to balance trust in your students and give us the break I would say we deserve,” Ridenhour said.

Kelly Davis, associate vice president of peer and youth advocacy for Mental Health America, said anniversaries of traumatic events, like campuses closing around this time last year due to the pandemic, can be particularly stressful for students.

“They’re probably dealing with this at the same time, thinking ‘When is this really going to end? When will things be a new normal? There’s a lot of other things that cause stress. to students, and the lack of a break is a continuation of an environment that leaves many young people feeling anxious, exhausted and stressed,” Davis said.

Some colleges that haven’t canceled spring break have invested in strategies to encourage students to stay local over the holidays. The University of California, Davis on Tuesday offered about 2,500 students who are staying in town for spring break $75 gift cards to local businesses. Sheri Atkinson, vice chancellor for student life, campus community and retention services, said gift cards provide students with the opportunity to participate in local activities. For example, there are gift cards for a local running and exercise store and for a bookstore, Atkinson said.

To be eligible for gift cards, students must be living in Davis during the break — about half of notstart 40,000 students enrolled do, even though classes are mostly online, Atkinson said. Students participating in the incentive program must also take a university COVID-19 test during spring break, from March 20 to 24which will provide evidence that they stayed during the week, she said.

“Our students here at UC Davis have done a really good job for the most part, so we wanted to do something positive for them to stay here and continue that positive behavior,” Atkinson said.

Students at other colleges and universities across the country generally took note and appreciated the efforts of administrators to provide a few days off, in the absence of a full week for spring break.

However, some students have found wellness days to be better in theory than in practice, Davis said. Students don’t get a break unless professors are explicit about not scheduling homework around welfare days and unless students can also take time off from work, daycare duties. children or other responsibilities unrelated to their academic work.

“For me, these feel-good days so far haven’t really been feel-good days,” said Helmi Henkin, a graduate student at Washington University’s Brown School in St. Louis, which gives students four days off instead of spring break. “Even though I don’t have any classes, I have two part-time jobs, and as part of my program, I have to do an internship.

“Having these one-off days isn’t very restful and besides, teachers have different levels of understanding,” Henkin said. “You might have a day off, but that doesn’t mean professors won’t be assigning gigantic exams that week.”

Brayden Soper, president of Associated Student Government at Emporia State University in Kansas, said traditional spring break can “be a huge relief” for students who want to travel safely to see family members. or miss work. Emporia State students, who will enjoy two wellness days this semester, are among the luckiest students in the Kansas State University system. Most of the system’s six institutions have canceled spring break and three will not offer wellness daysSoper said.

The two wellness days at Emporia State also helped the university shorten its spring semester, but Soper said students are less likely to notice the change. They need a break the most in the middle of the semester, when the midterms are over and mental health is poor, he said. If hanging out with friends after class or grabbing a drink or bite to eat at a restaurant are no longer safe options, opportunities to let off steam or decompress are lost, he said.

“We don’t remember enough about the importance of mental health,” Soper said. “Part of this is due to the strictness of the rules due to the pandemic… It is important to remind students to take this time.”

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