Spring break is cancelled this year due to COVID-19 concerns. Graphic by Elizabeth Wong

The University of Rhode Island recently announced plans to eliminate spring break from the 2020-2021 academic calendar due to concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spring break was supposed to occur March 22-28, but the URI Faculty Senate voted on Sept. 17 to cancel it, with President David Dooley signing it into policy shortly after. The Faculty Senate made this decision due to fear that students potentially leaving campus during spring break and returning a week later could result in a viral resurgence.

According to Laura Meyerson, chair of the Faculty Senate’s Academic Calendar Subcommittee, the Senate has been in discussion about the matter since the summer. 

“Our first thought was, ‘well, we need to make decisions, so that we can be sure that we’re keeping our community safe,’” Meyerson said. “And I think that you can think about the decision to cancel spring break much like the decision to not return to campus after Thanksgiving. As we know, when you go out into another community and come back, you’re increasing risk. And nobody wanted to do that.”

The final decision, according to Meyerson, had to be made early so that class registration, which begins in October, is unaffected. She also explained that the University is taking a cautious approach regarding the pandemic’s potential in the spring. No one knows if there will be a vaccine or treatment widely available by March, but the Faculty Senate felt it better to be safe than sorry.

Removing spring break resulted in some minor changes to the overall academic calendar. The calendar will remain the same as it was prior to the Faculty Senate vote until the week of spring break, which will have classes held. However, the school year now ends one week earlier than it would have normally to make up for this change. The last days of classes will be pushed one week earlier to April 26, and the final exam dates have been rescheduled for April 30 and May 3-7.

“The calendar remains exactly the same up until spring break,” Meyerson said. “So J-term remains the same, winter break is the same length and then we are ending one week early. And we’ve extended reading days from two days to three days. So there will be one extra reading day, and we’re hoping that will help provide some relief and breathing room for students.”

Undergraduate and graduate commencement ceremonies remain set on their initial dates, May 23 and May 22, respectively.

Faculty Senate President Megan Echeverria said that removing spring break would keep the academics of the spring semester smooth amid the pandemic. She based this off of feedback she received from parents and students last spring.

“One of the messages that we heard at the end of the spring semester was that there were some students and families out there who really placed a very high priority on being able to have some kind of in-person learning experience this year,” Echeverria said. “And that’s one of the reasons for example, that I’m teaching my own course, in a hybrid format, I’m offering to meet with my students in person, at least once a week. And there are other students who want to be able to take all of their courses online; completely understand and respect that. But we just want to be able to offer as many options as our students are asking of us, and this is one of the measures that we devise to make that possible.” 

Student Senate Academic Affairs Chair Thomas McGrath said that the Faculty Senate told him they would not consult with the Student Senate on their opinion about removing spring break because the Faculty Senate already made their decision based on health and safety cautions. Echeverria confirmed this account.

Although he agrees with the decision to cancel spring break from a safety standpoint, McGrath wishes that the Student Senate had input on the matter. 

McGrath also hopes to negotiate with the Faculty Senate so that an alternative break for students can be created.

“I think it was a tough decision to make, and I do wish there had been more student input like potentially having professors not give homework or exams at all for an entire week in lieu of an entire week off, just some kind of consolation,” McGrath said. “But that’s what I’m currently trying to figure out and work towards.”

Jay Rumas, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of URI, said he understood why the University had to be more restrictive this year to protect student, faculty and staff safety by canceling spring break. However, Rumas felt that the decision could have been made later, and the University could have focused on current issues on campus instead. For example, Rumas said that students recently gathered near Ellery Pond without social distancing, and despite complaints from resident assistants, police ignored calls and did not break up the groups.

“I think the University would be better served trying to stop these gatherings happening right now and focus on what’s happening on campus right now, rather than canceling something that’s half a year away when to be honest, we don’t even know what’s going to be happening,” Rumas said. 

Rumas also explained that no one knows if a vaccine will be available or not in March, and argued that the state of the virus and the 2020 election will have a significant impact on the future that University administration cannot predict at this time.

Echeverria reiterated that the decision needed to be made early so that class registration can go smoothly without a sudden change in the calendar, and therefore, class schedules. By canceling spring break, Echeverria hopes students will be discouraged from traveling at that time.

Regarding action for current social distancing enforcement on campus, Echeverria said it was not under the Faculty Senate’s authority to implement or enforce such measures. However, she said it is everyone on campus’s individual responsibility to act respectfully. Echeverria herself has limited her movements since March, sacrificing visiting extended family and other gatherings for others’ safety. She argued that she is demonstrating her trust in her students by coming to campus. 

“My expectation is that everyone else is going to do their part, so when someone tells me or writes to me and says there are people [not social distancing], that causes great concern, because I’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices,” Echeverria said. “And I know, a lot of our colleagues and a lot of our students have also made tremendous personal sacrifices in order to keep the entire community safe.”

Rumas also wished that the University consulted the student body before making their decision. He emphasized that not every student uses spring break to go on vacation, and some may travel for family or work-related reasons.

“They just kind of did it and [don’t] seem to have too much sound reasoning for it,” Rumas said. “It just seems to be a feel-good measure, in my opinion, because we know it’s the stereotype [that] everyone goes home or they party, and for a lot of people, that’s true. But for a lot of people it’s not, and in fact, many people were planning to go on service trips or to see their families or to work. And I think to just spring this on us mid-year is not really appropriate.”

Responding to student complaints overall, Meyerson noted that faculty enjoy spring break too, and that the decision was not made as a way to punish students.

“It was not an easy decision,” Meyerson said. “We met a couple of times, and we really discussed it and considered many, many things. And I feel for those students, I really do. But I understand and hopefully, this will just help us end this pandemic even sooner, so we can get back to our regular lives and really start enjoying them again.”