Responding to student backlash, WU adds third wellness day to spring calendar, moves up start date

Orli Sheffey | Staff Reporter

After students objected to the replacement of Spring Break with two nonconsecutive “wellness days,” Washington University announced a revised spring calendar that included two consecutive wellness days and one additional wellness day, Dec. 3.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Students walk by Olin Library at the start of the fall 2020 semester.

Individual departments in Arts & Sciences will each designate one or two “study days” off from all classes within that department, per a Dec. 7 email from Jennifer Smith, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

The spring semester will begin Monday, Jan. 25, one day earlier than previously communicated, to accommodate the additional wellness day, according to the Dec. 3 email from Provost Beverly Wendland. The updated calendar included two consecutive wellness days on Tuesday, March 2 and Wednesday, March 3, along with an additional wellness day on Monday, April 12.

“We will work closely with faculty to ensure that no class meetings are scheduled on wellness days, and that no assessments or major assignments are due on the days immediately following these days,” Wendland wrote. “We want to make sure we preserve these days, which are intended to be time for a break from academic work, including studying for tests or completing significant coursework.”

The updated calendar came after many students and parents expressed frustration with having only two days off during the spring semester. On Nov. 18, Student Union circulated a petition calling for the number of wellness days to be increased to five, which garnered nearly 5,000 signatures from students, parents and faculty. The WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU) wrote a letter to the administration, Dec. 6, calling for increased flexibility and transparency surrounding decisions related to COVID-19, including the number of wellness days and testing capacity.

Student Union President sophomore Ranen Miao said that when the initial calendar came out with only two wellness days, compared to the traditional week-long Spring Break, he was “incredibly disappointed.”

“I felt that the calendar reflected a lack of understanding of student needs at this time, and I think it really didn’t take into account mental health in the same [way] as they took into account COVID-19,” Miao said.

WUGWU Social Media Chair Kelsey Wulfkuhle said that adding a third wellness day seemed like a “band-aid solution.”

“I personally felt like the University hadn’t been listening to us this entire semester and that was evident in the spring semester plan,” Wulfkuhle said.

“Our main concerns as an organization are that, once again, this plan does not take into account the situations of students who are facing all kinds of extenuating circumstances, such as students who are low-income, who may have unstable housing situations, international students, non-traditional students,” WUGWU Allies and Outreach Chair Helmi Henkin said.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Rob Wild said that he met with Provost Wendland, Smith and about 10 student leaders before Thanksgiving, when the students presented recommendations. The administration then looked at the calendar and made revisions.

According to Smith, there were several constraints in changing the calendar, including a required minimum number of official instructional days to meet accreditation requirements and federal loan regulations, the delayed start to the second semester and the set commencement date. Additionally, natural science and engineering lab classes sometimes need to meet multiple days a week, and wellness days spread out over the course of the semester would cause several weeks of labs to be canceled.

“Nobody’s happy with not having more days off, but we don’t see where else there is the opportunity to move days around,” Smith said.

“We wish there were more flexibility, but under the circumstances and working within the limitations of the academic calendar, this is the best we can do,” Wendland wrote in a statement to Student Life.

In her Dec. 7 email to the College of Arts and Sciences, Smith said that while no more official days can be canceled because of accreditation requirements, the decision to have individual departments choose one or two days to cancel classes is designed to alleviate stress as much as possible at various points throughout the semester.

“We do know that this is not the same as additional full days off, but depending on your class schedule, even if study days do not generate some days without classes for you, you should end up with a few additional weeks throughout the semester that are at least a little lighter,” Smith wrote in the email.

Miao said that while three wellness days are better than two wellness days, he wished the University pushed back commencement “to give students the five days we asked for.”

Smith said that the administration did look to see whether commencement was movable, but it wasn’t possible.

“It was so messy…The schools in the region agreed to not overwhelm hotel capacity, that we’ll stagger our ceremonies, and there were contracts,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ve looked at every possible avenue to find more days to put in there and we just don’t have anything else.”

“If the University continues to refuse to negotiate the commencement date, we will continue to work in good faith on academic accommodations on granting flexibility and additional mental health support for students,” Miao said. “What really matters for me personally, at least, is ensuring that there are ways to help students with mental health issues. And that commitment doesn’t change depending on what calendar we have.”

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