Spring break cancellations spark mental health concerns for college students

 New federal applications for college aid this year have dropped 17% from 2019 — sparking fears that COVID-19 concerns could drive high school seniors to postpone college or skip it altogether.

The decline, according to an analysis of Department of Education data, builds on a 13% drop in freshman college enrollments this fall, as colleges switched to pandemic-prompted remote learning — and threatens economic harm to the American secondary education system that could linger for years.

Only 24% of students eligible to submit submissions the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, for the first time — that is, next year’s college freshmen — have done so, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Last year at this time, 29% of high school seniors had submitted the paperwork that opens federal, state, and other grants and loans to college students.

The decline is even more severe at schools that serve rural, low-income, and minority students, the National College Attainment Network found.

College searches and applications “are luxuries for a lot of families right now,” said Bill DeBaun, the nonprofit’s director of data and evaluation, as coronavirus restrictions cut into parental incomes and isolated students grapple with on-line classes.

A national survey of potential college students this week found that 36% of high schoolers say they are less likely to pursue higher education than they were before the pandemic hit, Insider Higher Ed reported Thursday.

High school guidance counselors, who would ordinarily be meeting with their charges in person to organize college applications and assist with financial aid questions this time of year, find themselves scrambling to motivate students through a computer screen.

“If a student doesn’t want to answer a call or show up for a Zoom class, they just don’t have to,” Jeremy Raff of the Lancaster, Pa., school district told the Wall Street Journal. “It is so easy to disengage.”

And kids themselves are hearing from peers that remote learning at the college level is no more satisfying than it is in high school.

“My friends who went away to college didn’t like it,” said Kaylin Francoeur, a freshman at a Massachusetts community college who enrolled there because of the pandemic’s uncertainty.

San Diego State University this week became the latest in a string of four-year institutions across the country to cancel spring break because of Covid-19 safety concerns.

Colleges and universities are altering their 2021 calendars in an effort to curtail travel and avoid the packed beaches and parties of last year as coronavirus cases surge.

Some, like SDSU, have scrapped spring break altogether, a move hailed by public health experts but criticized by students who say it could have a detrimental effect on their mental health. SDSU has countered by giving students single days off over the same period. But some students said it isn't enough.

“Without a break, we’re going to be faced with burnout, depression, and our mental health is going to deteriorate throughout next semester,” said Mark Gaunin, 21, a junior double majoring in computer engineering and physics.

Other schools that have canceled their spring breaks include Florida State University, Ohio State University, Boston University, and the University of Michigan, where students will receive two one-day "well-being breaks" without any scheduled academic activities in February and March.

It has also invested in its counseling and psychological services, said Kim Broekhuizen, associate director of public affairs at the University of Michigan, adding eight counselors to reduce wait times and augment services, which are mostly virtual during the pandemic.

While Gaunin said he supports SDSU taking precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19, the spring break decision denies students a much-needed respite during a particularly trying time.

“It’s a rough semester,” Gaunin said of the last few months of nonstop class adjustments, Covid-19 spikes, and the constant fear of contracting the virus.

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Research found that of 195 college students surveyed, 71 percent said they had experienced increased stress and anxiety because of the pandemic.

San Diego State University said in an all-campus email obtained by NBC News that instead of spring break, which usually takes place over five days in mid-March, it will offer four "rest and recovery" days free of instruction, assignments, deadlines, and exams.

Students will get the fifth day off in March in observance of César Chávez Day, said Wil Weston, university senate chair, and J. Luke Wood, vice president for student affairs, in the email.

Image: San Diego State University
The San Diego State University campus in September.Elliot Spagat / AP file

The university made the decision in consultation with faculty, public health experts, and county health officials after conducting Covid-19 modeling scenarios, they said.Guanyin said single days off are an unsuitable replacement for the real deal.

“It’s not a break," Guanin said. "it’s not really a rest and recovery day. It’s just going to be nonstop school. “We’re still going to have homework and deadlines that are going to be due the day after what they call ‘rest and recovery’ days."

A handful of SDSU students protested the cancellation Wednesday during an on-campus demonstration.

"Spring break. The ideology of it is the vacation time, but I think the most important aspect of it is the mental health for students," protest organizer Megan Allphin told NBC San Diego. "A 15-week semester, not including one-week consecutive days of break, is a lot for students to carry."

Megan Allphin, a Sophomore in the College of Health and Human Services and the organizer of the protest told NBC San Diego.

The protest came as an online petition calling on the 34,000-student university to bring back spring break began racking up thousands of signatures. As of Friday night, it had collected more than 12,000 signatures.

An SDSU spokesperson would not comment on the protest or the petition.

Similar petitions have surfaced online in the last few months that appear to be from students at Virginia Tech, James Madison University in Virginia and the University of Arkansas, among others, all with the similar message of preserving spring break for the sake of students’ mental health.

One titled, “KEEP SPRING BREAK 2021,” apparently started by a University of Arizona student, calls on the school to reinstate spring break so students can have a period of “stress relief.”“Breaks are necessary for students and having random days off in the middle of the semester instead of spring break is just not the same,” Gaunin said. “I understand the university wanting to decrease the amount of Covid cases and the spread of Covid, but it’s spring break. It’s a break for students, that’s why it’s there.”

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