April 22, 2021

EDITORIAL | Cornell, Give Us a Break

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On the eve of the second batch of Wellness Days, Cornell students are begging for more.

With just two days off to make a four-day weekend, this break comes as a slap in the face. We are 13 months into a pandemic — sitting behind a screen and calling it school, convincing ourselves that we’re fine. But as a community, we have carved out no substantial space for the tremendous amount of pain students, faculty and staff are feeling.

In a normal semester, Cornell would carve out seven full days off. Now, as students manage stress from all facets of their lives, the University has reduced those seven days down to just four. We’ve endured, as the University put it, “converging stressors” of “xenophobia, health disparities, racial injustice, political upheaval and economic downturn,” but we are supposed to keep trudging. Even at our breaking point, these Wellness Days are functionally just a break from logging onto Zoom classes — but little else. 

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Cornell has gutted breaks to keep students from traveling and spreading COVID-19. The Behavioral Compact already prohibits students from traveling without University approval and states that those who travel regardless could lose access to on-campus housing and in-person classes.  

Mandatory surveillance testing currently keeps many students from leaving campus for long stretches of time — missing a test means losing access to campus Wi-Fi, classes and course materials. (And while these consequences have not appeared to make a significant difference in the number of tests administered, they have added stress for students.)

But students are still traveling. Unless a student misses a surveillance test, Cornell has no real way to limit this travel, as the travel policy allows only for “extenuating circumstances,” leading many to travel without permission

According to one data analysis, there is no clear indication that schools that have cut spring breaks have lower levels of COVID-19 transmission. But these levels of COVID-19 risk also ignore other metrics of student wellbeing.

Without breaks and without significant accommodations, students cannot be safe by any meaning of the word.

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Many students have circulated and lamented the same list of University resources in our inboxes. Counseling and Psychological Services appointments dry up quickly and can take over two weeks to get the 25-minute time with a therapist. Students who previously leaned on peer counseling lost that option, too, when the University found that its current insurance policy does not cover it. Instead, some students are leaving campus to get help from home in an attempt to make up for insufficient professional help in Ithaca. 

Beyond these strained resources, the University shifted the responsibility to professors to fill the gaps. In an April 12 email to faculty, administrators wrote: “We urge you to respond with as much compassion and flexibility as is humanly possible.” 

Many faculty have taken this to heart, canceling assignments, rearranging syllabi and opening spaces for students to vent. They have held conversations at the beginning of class, letting students unload the pain of that morning, of that week and of the past year.

But professors are not equipped to be this sole support, nor are they equipped to give students the kind of breaks they need. For those who have extended empathy to students, thank you. It has made a world of difference. 

Still, this is not the norm. Some professors have denied requests for extensions — as the University did not guarantee them — and some have reduced ongoing tragedies to bullet points on lecture slides, with students taking to Twitter as the space that will listen.

Cornell is asking professors to talk to students, support students emotionally, change their lesson plans and respond to all our concerns — without a break themselves. Faculty watch students flounder and chip away at the assignments they can, but are unable to give students a week off. Some ask if it’s better to keep offering structure or if the structure is suffocating. 

The rest of the onus lies on students. From resident advisers to campus leaders, students are holding each other up — writing each other emails to send to professors asking for extensions and accommodations, and canceling club meetings in an attempt to give their peers a break. 

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The University has carried out one substantial institutional change: a delayed drop deadline, announced April 13. But this policy could have been in place from the start. 

Instead, it is now a last resort in the 10th week of the semester, a policy change that hit students’ inboxes with cautions of dropping below the 12-credit minimum — reminding them that meeting this minimum affects academic standing, financial aid, immigration status and athletic compliance. 

The administration has also encouraged students to ask for accommodations. But this means students, already stretched thin, must advocate for themselves without a promise of compassion or flexibility. 

Our situation has not changed dramatically since last spring, when campus erupted into debates about grading modes, and Cornell ultimately implemented S/U options for all classes, including major or minor requirements. As students and professors have dragged through online courses and classes for more than a year, the University has not accommodated the ongoing difficulties.

Cornell, you have asked students and faculty to bend over backward to adjust their lives to “protect the community” from the pandemic. We have incorporated surveillance testing, Daily Checks and isolation into our routines, among our readings and problem sets. But you have blamed students for outbreaks, while offering few opportunities to socialize or spaces to be people.  

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Two weeks ago, reporters tried to contact a large batch of administrators, and their emails all returned “out of office” messages. Cornell recognizes the weight of this year and the need for breaks. Why doesn’t that extend to us — your professors, your graduate students, your staff, your undergraduates?

“Students are exhausted, lonely and overwhelmed,” the University wrote to faculty. “They need to be able to pause so they can process their emotions and grieve.”

University emails, student life Instagram pages and residence halls posters tell students to take a walk, to meditate, to spend time in nature. But these short-term “de-stressers” cannot scratch the surface of the institutional issues Cornell faces. 

Cornell is not alone in this widespread mental health crisis on college campuses — one that long predates the pandemic and has only been exacerbated by it.   

Princeton University students also saw a shortened spring break — and their mental health services saw a drastic increase, including a 60 percent increase in hospitalizations compared to the previous year, according to The Daily Princetonian. 

But in response to this increase and ongoing student pleas, Dean of the College Jill Dolan recommended “shaving off pieces of the last two weeks of assignments,” making certain inessential readings optional, clarifying final work expectations early and “providing opportunities for other kinds of final work or even individualized plans with students who are in very real difficulty.”

These changes are not beyond Cornell’s reach. The University could implement limits on how many final components are offered or create “slip days,” as the Student Assembly advocated for on April 15.  

If nothing else, the University should make accommodation options clearer to students and to professors looking to offer what Dolan called “compassionate approaches.” Give power to professors who will always have a clearer grasp on student needs and academic wellbeing. 

These accommodations should be the standard, not the exception. Cornell calls this year “unprecedented,” but its policies do not acknowledge the effects on its community. 

Tragedy across the nation and at home on campus weighs on all of us, and we cannot be expected to turn on the camera for another Zoom call and trudge along. In many ways, it’s too little too late from our administrators. But we need Cornell to do better now.

The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage, other columnists and advertisers.