WESTERVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) – Otterbein University students are calling for a break from a stressful school year. By Tuesday morning, more than 600 people had signed an online petition titled “Add more breaks for better education.”
“We’re not machines, we’re not meant to keep going and going and going. Then when we finally need a break, we don’t have one,” said the petition creator Shelby McSwords, a senior at Otterbein University.
When the school announced its adapted plan for the fall semester it explained the term would be shorter, starting later, ending earlier and eliminating extended weekends.
“Any long breaks that sort of encourage people to leave campus, go home or wherever they’re going, and then return to campus is not advisable – both for the safety of the campus and for the friends and family, whoever they may be visiting,” said University President Dr. John Comerford.
Concerns over mental health, suffering grades, low morale and high stress were all among the complaints from students asking for breaks to be restored.
“They’re trying to finish the semester before the virus gets really bad, which is understandable. But they’re running the students just into the ground and it’s really hard for everyone,” said senior Ken Elliott.
Elliott temporarily moved from his home in Powell to an extended stay hotel closer to campus, hoping the proximity to his professors would help him recover academically.
“My grades are suffering just because of the kind of chaos that’s happening at the moment,” he explained. “I suffer from mental health issues and this is making it quite a bit harder for me.”
Others voiced similar concerns. McSwords said her struggle with chronic illness has been exasperated by a lack of rest during the semester.
“Some days I just cannot show up because I cannot do it,” she said.
President Comerford acknowledged the students’ concerns and said he sympathized.
“We all want a semester back to the way we wanted it, the way we’ve had it and have the rhythm of some natural breaks in it,” he said. “But priority one is to keep people safe and so we’re doing what the experts tell us to do.”
Comerford explained the University is basing its schedules on guidance from Franklin County Public Health. Experts there recommended a longer break in between semesters to build in buffer time around holidays when students might attend large social gatherings.
“I agree with the students. I want more breaks, too. Our faculty and staff want more breaks. It’s unfortunate we’re in a situation where not everything is going to be possible,” Dr. Comerford said.
The school is also required to meet a certain number of credit hours to meet its accreditation standards. The process is something Comerford hopes to explain to the university community in an upcoming meeting with student government.
“We’re sort of stuck,” he said. “I will say to them, it stinks. It’s not good. It’s not fun for them, it’s not fun for us. But we think it’s the best thing given the situation.”
The university said it has expanded free on-campus mental health services, is promoting the use of trained peer advocates and has added outdoor small group activities to encourage safe gatherings.
Students like McSwords and Elliott are hoping for more resources.
“They assure me everyone is struggling. But I don’t get much in the way of hope,” said Elliott.
McSwords added, “We’re not attacking, we’re just asking for help.”
Comerford said mental health concerns will be his top priority in conversations with student government this week.
McSwords also plans to meet with the student government. She hopes to gather 1,000 signatures before submitting the petition to the academic affairs department and university president.