Michelle Li/Sun Staff Photographer

Midway through the semester, virtual learning has had a variety of effects on students' mental health.

October 27, 2020

Midway Through the Semester, Students Contend With Burnout, Zoom Fatigue

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Even during a normal college semester, Cornell students struggle to take care of their mental health, caught between endless projects, exams and papers.

Add in a global pandemic and the issue of mental health gets even worse. The hybrid semester — part online, part in-person — has contributed to rising stress and anxiety levels, leading to an increasing number of students feeling burnt out.

According to Erica Li ’24, a lot of the stress she has felt so far this semester is due to her online classes, which she said is preventing her from having a manageable learning experience.

“Because of online teaching it’s a lot harder to get information across to students when everything is online,” Li said. “Especially [since] there’s so many technical difficulties all the time, so it’s hard to communicate effectively with others.”

Li said the difficulty of communicating over Zoom negatively affected her level of understanding, and as a result, her grades.

“Your grades go down. And then you have to work even harder and it becomes this weird cycle of not understanding what’s going on and having to spend more time [on your work],” Li said.

For Jackson Keel-Atkins ’22, the main concern was being overworked.

“It feels like [in] this semester, going to class isn’t what’s taking up most of my time, it’s just the fact that professors are now compensating for the lack of class with even more work,” Keel-Atkins said.

He attributed the increased workload to professors still getting used to teaching online, and as a result haven’t figured out how to properly structure the lecture material and due dates.

“I have one class with a prelim, a project, and homework all due within three days of each other,” Keel-Atkins said.

But the hybrid schedule did have some proponents. Rachel Bradley ’21 said that, for her, it is much easier to log onto Zoom than trek across campus to an in-person class.

“I fall into the camp where having the option for online learning is actually better for me as I am not a morning person,” Bradley said. “I will almost always make it to class if all I have to do is log in to my laptop.”

However, Bradley conceded that, even if online learning has provided some convenience, the pandemic has had significant, negative impacts on students’ mental health more broadly.

Li said that more flexibility in grading could help to effectively address the mental health challenges that students are experiencing due to the stress of learning in a pandemic.

“I’ve heard of other schools allowing you to do more of a pass/fail kind of system and I think that would ease the burden a lot more since it is harder to learn during these times,” Li said.

During a normal semester, students have four days to unwind over fall break, usually a long weekend within the first two weeks in October. This year, the break was replaced by a single Wednesday off from classes on Oct. 14.

The change was made in order to dissuade students from leaving Ithaca, according to vice president for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi.

“Our academic leadership this past summer decided that this option was preferable to a traditional fall break attached to the weekend to discourage travel away from Ithaca, which increases risk to the community,” Lombardi wrote in an email to The Sun.

While some students felt that the lack of a proper break contributed to feelings of burnout, others didn’t believe the change had a substantial impact on their mental health.

Bradley said that she always starts to feel a little overwhelmed at this point in the semester, and as a result, the longer break would have been a welcome respite.

“I definitely think we would have benefited from a fall break or at the very least a no homework week. Students need time to breathe; no one can be on top of their game at all times, especially not in a world as chaotic as the one we are in,” Bradley said.

Li said that she understood why the administration planned the day-off in the middle of the week, but believed that a longer break would have given her more time to take a step back from schoolwork and feel refreshed.

“It did feel a little more hectic being in the middle of the week, because like I said a lot of teachers do assume that you have more time on your hands as a result. So, I think it’s better this way but it’s still definitely challenging to deal with,” Li said. “I definitely feel a lot of pressure is building up.”

Li spent most of the day catching up on work, but did manage to find a little bit of time to check out the Autumn celebrations on the Arts Quad.

Though Keel-Atkins agreed that he was feeling more stress than during an ordinary semester, he didn’t think a longer break would have helped him deal with his schoolwork.

“Even if we did have an actual fall break, that wouldn’t really change the amount of things to do,” Keel-Atkins said. “I feel like it wouldn’t have actually made a difference in the workload and easing stress.”