I was still hunched over my desk when I looked at the clock. It was late and I was trying to finish a problem set for my economics class. Recently, I have spent more hours slouching than sitting up straight. I had been sitting in the same spot since noon, only leaving my room twice for food. Last year, spending a Sunday night studying wouldn’t have disturbed me as much as it does now. After finishing my work in the library, I could have hustled over to the Cooler or caught up with my friends before going to bed.
Currently, I am taking a normal class load of 16 units and I have never felt more burnout. A long day on Zoom leaves me feeling like a zombie: a half-version of myself who cannot function as I once did. I find myself going on my phone every 10 or 15 minutes during an online lecture. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of energy that each online class drains in exchange for only a sliver of knowledge.
When the college announced we would be ending fall semester a week early — at the expense of fall break — I thought the extended winter break would make my schedule easier. But that isn’t the case. Instead, we have an accelerated semester with no breaks from Labor Day to Thanksgiving and with only one extra week of winter break. Last year’s fall break occurred Oct. 14–15. On the equivalent weekend of this semester, I noticed my roommates and peers were drowning in work. Occidental’s Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) sent out an email asking students and faculty to sign a petition: The Letter to Advocate for Fall Break. The 748 signatures on this letter demonstrate the large number of students who desperately needed a break. The college administration failed to institutionalize students’ requests, urging faculty to offer students personal care days but stopping short of canceling classes. This was unacceptable.
Some of my classes require watching lectures as long as 90 minutes ahead of each class. Extracurricular activities also seem more like work because they take place in the same format as many of my classes: Zoom. My brain is struggling to differentiate “fun time” on my computer from “work time” and “learning time.” I have begun to resent my little laptop that carried me all throughout high school. At the end of the online school day, I shove it under my bed.
The last half of the Spring 2020 online semester was bearable. Many of my professors told us to take it easy and modified our final assignments since we had fewer resources. I appreciated the frequent check-ins that acknowledged everyone was in distress and school was not the only thing on people’s minds.
This semester, those check-ins have petered out as everyone tries to operate under some pretense of normalcy. While the college has offered webinars centered around time management and work efficiency, they have not taken the time to introspect and consider how they can make online school easier for everyone.
As I wait for Zoom to load each day, I never know what kind of class I’m walking into. Some classes are meandering and borderline pointless while others ask for your undivided attention — which is nearly impossible online. At this point, I am considering taking next semester off entirely.
While planning the spring semester, the college has an opportunity to reconsider its accelerated schedule so students can have substantial breaks from their screens and school in general. They should also redefine remote testing policies or eliminate remote tests. Many tests occur over a 24-hour period and have become even more draining. As they are open-book and remote, I do not understand why they cannot be substituted with projects or assignments that ask us to showcase our knowledge and think deeply, instead of regurgitating our notes.
Online semesters cannot recapture the joy that accompanies being on campus. There are definitely nights when I mourn my sophomore year and the path I was on prior to COVID-19. It feels like I am grieving for my former life and sometimes, my former self. Online school feels like a simulation, not a classroom, and I crave the old world even more. Last spring, whenever I felt down, I would close my eyes and picture myself walking down the quad to class: seeing familiar faces and watching the parrots take off. The thought of being back at school gave me hope and something to look forward to. Now that I know what online school is like, I have nothing definitive that keeps me going. In these circumstances it is particularly important that we have a spring break to sustain our motivation and energy. The college must rethink the spring semester before it’s too late.