Is this the fourth semester affected by COVID-19 or the first “post-COVID-19” semester? As the Fall 2021 semester comes to a close, students and faculty alike report feeling burned out as the University attempts to strike a balance between restoring a semblance of campus normalcy with taking appropriate public health measures in the face of an ongoing pandemic.
Christy Thornton, an assistant professor of sociology and director of undergraduate studies for the program in Latin American studies, stated that many of her colleagues’ COVID-19-era concerns did not go away with the return to campus. Childcare, for example, is still a challenge for faculty members navigating the prospect of their child’s caregiver getting sick or a school-aged child being sent home to quarantine.
“We’re acting as though we’re kind of back to the regular world when in fact we’re all still dealing with the fallout of the pandemic,” Thornton said in an interview with The News-Letter.
Beyond the uncertainties of pandemic life, Thornton also explained how the increased digitalization of academic work has added pressure for faculty to increase their workloads.
“As faculty, we’re piling a bunch of new expectations on ourselves because they’re happening via Zoom,” she said. “[For example, a professor might think] ‘I’m gonna teach my two classes, then Zoom into this conference in the Netherlands on top of that.’”
Jonathan Flombaum, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, reflected on how burnout has affected his students and himself in an email to The News-Letter.
“For me this semester was the first since lock down where it feels like I am supposed to be firing on all cylinders again,” he wrote. “Why does it feel like I have so many different and often little things to do and like the bigger things don’t cause a sense of urgency, just dread! Was it like this before and I just forgot? I can’t tell.”
For the student body, returning to campus also came with a set of mixed feelings. Initially, several freshman and sophomores reported feeling excited to come to campus and interact with friends they met online for the first time. As the semester progressed, students reported burnout and expressed concerned about the lack of a mid-semester fall break, which previously occurred in late October. An SGA survey advocating for mental health days from the University received over 1000 responses.
In November, The News-Letter released a survey on social media to gather student thoughts on the past semester. Seven students responded, sharing varied accounts of their semesters.
After being in isolation for 18 months, many were happy to re-engage with friends, and some reported valuing their social lives more than they had pre-pandemic. As a result, many felt pressured to go out as much as possible to “make up for lost time,” even at the cost of their physical health.
For example, senior Honor Zetzer agreed that coming back in-person meant that she had less time to take care of herself, but felt that her mental health had improved this fall.
“I [felt] very lethargic and disinterested in life on a daily basis in the spring. Now, I constantly have plans and feel exhausted, but I feel happy and like I am using my time to live a life worth living,” she wrote in the survey. “I'm not always happy, but I feel purpose and I feel hope.”
At the same time, other students acknowledged that it had been difficult to get through the semester, especially without all of the resources and accommodations the university had offered pre-pandemic.
Junior Darren Lu reported being happy to return to some aspects of pre-pandemic life, but expressed frustration that some things, such as fall break, had not returned to normal.
“I enjoy being able to see my friends in-person, do club events in-person, and do wet-lab work,” Lu wrote in the survey. “My motivation has fluctuated, and I have definitely burnt out quicker in fall than [last] spring. Hopefully administration can recognize that students need an actual fall break.”
Daniella Needleman agreed that some aspects of campus life, such as the limited hours in the library or the campus gym being under construction, had still not returned to normal.
“If you're going to encourage students to be on campus, you should provide them with the resources they need (and pay lots of money for) to be the most successful,” Needleman wrote in her response survey.
Student attitudes at JHU reflect a national trend of college student burnout. Current Brown University sophomores did not get a summer break after their university transitioned to a trimester system that required students to take classes in the spring, summer and fall semesters. George Washington University also cancelled the traditional undergraduate mid-semester fall break. Student editorials from Point Park University to Arizona State University also express the sentiment that students feel stretched to their limit.
Beyond stress, according to the CDC, 25% of those aged 18-24 and 10% of all adults who were surveyed in June 2020 had seriously considered suicide in the past month. In June 2018, only four percent of all adults had seriously considered suicide within the past month.
In October, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to K-12 and postsecondary educators providing information on their obligation to support students at risk of self-harm or suicide due to mental illness and the pandemic. Recommendations include providing more robust mental health services, modifying attendance policies for students struggling and training staff to recognize distress in students.
“Importantly, these Federal disability-rights laws require that when students with mental health disabilities need help or are in crisis, schools and postsecondary institutions make decisions about how to respond based on each student’s individual circumstances, rather than on myths, fears, or stereotypes about people with mental illness,” the letter read.
Flombaum discussed some ways that he believed student anxiety could be addressed by universities and faculty.
“[Faculty] are layering stress and anxiety on people who should work hard in the course if they like it and it is useful, but not be stressed about it,” he wrote. “We should really reconsider the whole scheme of grading in college courses, and most courses should be much more flexible, and either pass/fail or be graded relatively easily, mostly for completion.”
In light of the stress and anxiety of the past semester, Flombaum offered his advice to Hopkins students.
“[S]et boundaries for yourself where you do what you can to study within a reasonable, healthy and well rounded lifestyle,” he wrote.