Much Ado about Reading Break

Reading break blues

By now, all students at Redeemer have heard of the modified plans for the winter semester. These plans include cancelling reading week in February, adding an extra seven days onto Christmas break, and holding classes on Easter Monday. While all of these changes have been done in the spirit of keeping COVID off of campus and keeping the school open for business, there seem to be a lot of other negative effects that will impact students. In a situation like this, there are definitely two sides to the story, and it is important for both sides of the story to be heard.

Reading breaks have been an important aspect of a university’s term, and it would be hard to find a university or college in Ontario that does not have a winter reading break. Reading breaks are used by students in various ways, but this week is undeniably important to the student body. Those who have fallen behind are given a whole week to catch up on work so that they can continue in the semester without feeling like they are drowning. Those who have been working hard to stay on track have the opportunity to take a break and simply breathe, or have the chance to work ahead and lessen the impact of the rest of the semester. For all students, it is a valuable time to relieve some of the stress brought on by post-secondary education, and this change will greatly affect the students who rely on reading week to catch up, get ahead, or even just rest. “I have dealt with mental health struggles in the past,” says an anonymous Redeemer student, “…getting to the week-long reading break has felt like I was just keeping my head above water because the stress of everything was almost too much to bear – that being said, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Mental illness is a real thing, and on the rise, so why are we taking away something that is designed to help with this?”

Now, struggles with mental health have been a problem during the best of years (and have been steadily rising!) But this year is undeniably a different year, with countless new struggles. Students have been dealing with the isolation, fear, and stress that is a result of the impacts of COVID on their daily lives. Student Senate, while not hearing the concerns of every student on campus, has heard concerns from a number of students about these changes.“[W]e find ourselves in a place and situation that is so different from what we could’ve expected at this time last year,” says Alison Nirula, Vice President of Student Affairs, “[o]n top of the regular stress that comes with being a university student, we are also facing the added stress of learning to live in a pandemic. This alone increases stress levels and negatively impacts mental health…[i]t is not sustainable for students to work all semester without having some form of a reading break.” Dealing with quarantine and the fear of catching a deadly disease has been an unexpected burden for everyone, and there are many people who feel that the impacts of mental health are not being taken seriously. University is a demanding time for even the healthiest, happiest students; during even the calmest, happiest years. The students that struggle with mental health as well as the effects of the pandemic feel the demands of post-secondary education stress in an even greater way.

For quite a few students, the decision to hold classes on Easter Monday came as a shock. Yes, we are in the midst of an international pandemic, but why would a professing Christian university ask its students to go to classes during a time that is considered important to Christians? For secular universities, Easter may be known as nothing more than a holiday that celebrates chocolate and the Easter bunny, but for Christians it is so much more than that. Christmas is an important time to celebrate the birth of Christ, but Easter is equally, if not more, important as a holiday to celebrate His resurrection. Isn’t that at the core of the Christian faith, and shouldn’t that be important to a Christian university? Even though Easter Monday is not “technically” a holiday, the weekend as a whole is important to many Christian families. Redeemer is known, as a Christian university, to not schedule varsity games on Sundays. While varsity games are also being put on hold for the year, many would argue that Eastertime should be more important to a Christian school.

Now, it is extremely important to note that there are two sides to this story. Redeemer is a school that does care about the wellbeing of their students. A lot of thought is put into creating the atmosphere of care and community that Redeemer is famous for as a Christian school, and Redeemer is obviously not to blame for the circumstances of the pandemic. The decision to cancel the reading break and add a week onto Christmas break has been done with the mindset of keeping Redeemer open for in person learning, and no one can say that in person learning is not important. The decision to cancel the reading break was done to minimize the amount that students leave campus and return, which will minimize the risk of having active COVID cases on campus. This decision was not made lightly by the school, and it was done with the best interests of in person learning at heart. The decision to hold classes on Easter Monday was also made as a way to minimize students travelling. For the students that struggle with mental health, Redeemer has mental health services available to all of its students. While mental health services may not be a solution to stress, they may help relieve some of the stress and anxiety during this time.

It is also important to acknowledge the decisions of Redeemer as valid in protecting the school’s ability to stay open. At the same time, it is also important for students to be able to voice their concerns. There may be students who are completely fine with these changes, or those who appreciate a longer Christmas break, but there are still those who understand why the decision was made but feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. Redeemer has made a decision that it believes will allow for the best possible chance for the school to stay open, but is there a way to still meet in the middle? “[S]tudents strongly believe that there needs to be some sort of a compromise between keeping students healthy physically (from COVID) and keeping students healthy mentally (with some sort of reading break),” says Nirula. There are many alternatives that would keep students on campus but also allow for that much needed time to breathe and rest. Things like a test or project free week, or reading “days” (a one or two day break) may be ways that could still be considered as a way to accommodate students amidst a global pandemic. 

The times are strange. The decisions are hard. The concern is real. Yet there are still ways for this situation to play out in a way which would benefit both school and students. Even if this means saying goodbye to reading break for the winter term, students should remember that in person learning is a blessing that many other schools don’t have right now. On the other hand, hopefully hearing student voices allows for Redeemer to get a full picture of the mental state of their students so that topics like these can be communicated about and resolved.