748 students sign DEB’s letter advocating for a fall break

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In a public letter addressed to the administration, faculty and students of the college, the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) advocated for the implementation of a fall break from Nov. 3–5. The letter was written on a public Google Doc and circulated throughout the community via an email from DEB Oct. 21. As of Nov. 10 at 12 p.m., 748 students, 25 alumni, 72 parents, 23 faculty members and 46 college clubs and organizations have signed the letter. The contents of the letter cite an already challenging semester with students facing disadvantaged learning situations, stress due to COVID-19 and anxiety about the election as reasons to increase flexibility and support for students.

“Let us all take a breath. Let us stop for a moment to think, reflect, and heal,” DEB wrote. “We must take the initiative to fulfill our neglected needs because the overall impacts from working nonstop for nine weeks straight are undoubtedly more damaging and unsustainable.”

In an email statement to The Occidental, DEB said their decision to advocate for a fall break came from a place of concern and care for the Occidental community. According to DEB, in a mid-semester survey designed to gauge student well-being, the responses received pointed toward a need for more student support for personal and academic reasons.

“We found that the majority of the over 250 students who participated in our survey are struggling to keep up with their classes, and there was also an overwhelming sentiment that students are dealing with poor mental health and needed a break. In particular, concern over academic success was especially high among students who identify as first-generation and low income,” DEB said in an email statement.

While no blanket administrative policy was implemented, ASOC Vice President of Academic Affairs, Oli Vorster, sent an email to the student body Oct. 27 where they attached a document addressed to faculty from Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg. The document urged faculty to be flexible and to consider making classes and assignments optional in pursuit of lessening the workload of students and faculty. The emphasis on faculty flexibility has been ongoing all semester as well as in the Spring 2020 semester after the initial move to an online learning model.

According to Sternberg, she decided against an administratively mandated fall break because those days off would shrink the number of instructional days to less than what is required by the college’s accrediting body. Sternberg also said she was reluctant to implement a break because some professors had already built days off into their classroom plans and she wanted to retain the control faculty have over their classroom.

Sternberg said her message to faculty was sent before she had seen the DEB letter advocating for fall break and it was written in response to hearing from faculty about the intense workload and fatigue they had been feeling throughout this semester.

Sternberg said she felt the messaging from administrators and students matched in terms of leniency and the need for support and compassion towards students and their situation. According to Sternberg, she felt it was important for her messaging to be clear to faculty that she understood and supported a pull back from the intense pace of the semester in favor of rest and care.

“I want faculty to hear from me that they would not be judged negatively for pulling back or removing assignments or content or things like that,” Sternberg said. “So we were very much on the same page. Where DEB was coming from, and where myself and the academic administration and the faculty leadership, were all very much aligned in what we felt the community needed by way of some mental health days.”

According to Woody Studenmund, professor of economics and a faculty signee of the DEB letter, the stress the college community is collectively feeling necessitates compassion and understanding in order to help everyone to accomplish their goals. Studenmund said he signed the letter to support students in their academic pursuits while still allowing them space to take care of themselves.

“To me, it wasn’t just about fall break, it was about trying to figure out ways to help students achieve more or less the same educational accomplishments while putting them under less stress,” Studenmund said. “For example, I’ve made a midterm open book instead of closed book and little things like that, or allow people to redo problem sets if they don’t get it right the first time. Those are very small steps, but still it could make a big difference in a student’s well-being.”

Cognitive science professor Carmel Levitan said she did not sign DEB’s letter advocating for fall break because she built flexibility into her courses from the beginning of the semester and adjusted the workload in her courses as her students needed instead of canceling classes during election week. In her “Introduction to Cognitive Science” class, Levitan implemented a week of self care in which she did not assign any new materials in recognition of how much work students had been putting into the course. Levitan said she plans to continue implementing this week of self care in future courses.

“It is important to make time for activities such as sleep, exercise, social interactions, and time in nature — and build those activities in so that they aren’t seen as a guilty pleasure or something to happen between semesters, but as part of students’ regular lives,” Levitan said via email. “As a cognitive scientist, I’m familiar with research that these activities are actually good for the brain; for instance, sleep can enhance memory. But more importantly, all of these things can help students thrive more holistically.”

Levitan said she appreciated that DEB has worked hard to advocate for marginalized students, and she agreed that students are going through enormous challenges right now.

Emily Driscoll (junior), a student signee of the DEB letter, said she felt overwhelmed and like she desperately needed a break where new work would not be added so she could catch up. Driscoll said the election and increased stressors due to the COVID-19 pandemic have influenced students’ schoolwork and their mental health.

“I do think that mental health should take priority especially given we are in a pandemic that is a traumatic situation and everyone’s dealing with so much that academics probably aren’t everyone’s priority at the moment,” Driscoll said. “So I think that from that standpoint, administration should be doing more to make sure that the students are getting the help and resources that they need.”

River Lisius contributed reporting for this article.