Alex Trachsell, Staff Writer

Very rarely do U of T students, myself included, rush to sing the praises of President Meric Gertler. At the moment, however, it seems that both singing and praising are in order.

President Gertler has announced that the start of the 2021 winter term will be delayed to January 11th for students, while staff-appointed employees will return on January 4th. In his wisdom, President Gertler has listened to the thousands of student signatories who petitioned for this extension and has followed the emerging precedent being set by universities such as McMaster and Concordia. This coordination with other universities is particularly impressive, considering that we repeatedly have fall break weeks apart from other universities, forcing students to choose between diligently continuing our studies (being a good student) while our high school friends meet up for the first time in months… or abandoning our studies to spend time with them instead (being a good friend). I’m sorry, but if we are going to be positive and praise President Gertler, I’m certainly going to have to also inject some negativity and bitterness to keep the paragraph balanced.

Photo source: Helena Ciompvá

That said, when all of this praise is over with and the euphoria of having an extra week off turns into the realization that this extra time will be spent in the exact same place you’ve been studying for the past months, questions arise. Namely, doesn’t it seem just too good to have an extension with no drawbacks? After all, when a professor is sick and cancels a lecture, you don’t celebrate – you start on the week’s readings and the assignment that’s been posted in the lecture’s absence. Extend the break here, do the makeup work there. Has President Gertler played with our emotions by simply subtracting one and quietly adding one to the stresses of studying during the pandemic? Will we be enjoying our extra week now and then stressing as we cram later in the year?

   Hypothetical Stress Levels (HSL)No Extension = 12u

                                 HSLExtended Winter Break = 12u- 1uLonger Break+(1u)Shorter Exam Period

                                       HSLExtended Winter Break = 12u

                                       HSLExtended Winter Break = HSLNo Extension

President Gertler and the student petitioners support the extension for the same reason: stress relief. The mid-semester breaks throughout the year are aimed at relieving stress. Clearly, this year has caused exceptionally high levels of stress, navigating the world of learning during a pandemic. Hence, as Gertler and the petitioners prudently note, this calls for an exceptionally long winter break.

However, the university has not decided to change the dates of the exam period (April thirtieth is still the last day at the moment), despite delaying the class-period of the semester for one week. As such, we will also receive one week less for the exam period, with the information we have at the moment. Very little has been said about this from the university administration, with the responsibility of reshuffling the exam schedule (to fit the shorter window) being assigned to each individual faculty.

All of this considered, I think this decision was somewhat rash. I do not doubt that President Gertler and Co were acting on the will of the students, but I’m less certain they have acted in our best interest. After all, if the university thinks that, under normal circumstances, the appropriate length for the exam period is twenty-four days (from the sixth to the thirtieth, according to previous years’ schedules), why are we shortening the period to nineteen days under these more grueling, stressful circumstances? Looking at this another way, why do us students think that it would be more detrimental to our mental health to go back to school after only a two week break, rather than having one less week during the final exam period? I think most students would agree that the exam period is the most stressful, mentally taxing period of the semester and so I would argue that it is not in our best interest to essentially siphon a week from this already stressful period to add it to the winter break. Overall, this extension might be posed to adversely affect mental health, rather than simply fail to affect it. To revise my previous expression:

  Hypothetical Stress Levels (HSL)No Extension = 12u

                                HSLExtended Winter Break = 12u-1uLonger Break+(3u)Shorter Exam Period

                                       HSLExtended Winter Break = 14u

                                                                      14u > 12u

                                       HSLExtended Winter Break > HSLNo Extension

This decision also signals a break from traditional pedagogical wisdom. We’re forever being told to start on our work early so that we can coast into the end of the semester, rather than cramming from one looming due date to another. Yet the winter break extension practically forces the latter — unhealthy work habits — since we’re being forced to take a break during what would normally be the first week back (what you might call forced procrastination). Then, come the final exam period (when full-year courses are also ending), we’ll be forced into doing the same amount of work we’d do under normal circumstances. The only difference is that we’ll be under a more pressing time constraint, where we’ll be cramming from one looming exam date to another.

In a university which already faces intense negative press surrounding mental health, one can’t help but speculate that the U of T administration’s decision to delay the winter break was a rather short-sighted attempt to generate some easy applause. Based on our current information, it seems that my praises of President Gertler were misplaced, since the extension will create just as much stress as it solves come April. What goes around comes around in university logistics and not even a hefty petition can change that. 

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