As a difficult semester winds down, advice for the College on student mental health

Editorial Board

For some students, fall 2020 has meant hunkering down in dorms with podmates for meals and classes, sitting spaced out in lecture halls for small seminars and learning to interact with friends through masks and six feet of space. For others studying remotely, it has meant taking classes and maintaining friendships through Zoom — a word that, not so long ago, was just a lowercase verb. For yet others, it has meant taking a semester or year off from college and forging new paths. For all of us, this semester has been strange and stressful. 

Despite this, the semester has been successful in many ways. Unlike peer institutions such as Amherst and Bowdoin, all students at Williams who wished to enroll on campus could do so. Only seven students and five faculty and staff tested positive for COVID-19 — a difficult experience for all, yet a low number compared with many other colleges and universities. All on-campus students got tested twice a week, while students at many other colleges got tested much less regularly. And students who could not, or chose not to, enroll on campus could take any of the College’s classes remotely. 

For that, thank you.

Thank you to the administrators who handled all of the logistics. Thank you to the professors who spent time trying to adapt their classes to distanced or remote formats. Thank you to the staff who worked to keep us healthy, particularly the staff in facilities and dining services who served as frontline workers. And thank you to our fellow students who did their best to keep each other safe.

As we reflect on all of the ways that the semester was successful and express gratitude to those who made it so, we also want to point to one area in which the College can do better: prioritizing students’ mental health. Students have had to navigate all the usual stresses of a semester — taking classes, building relationships and searching for jobs — while distancing from each other and while bearing the psychic weight of a pandemic that has now killed 284,000 in the U.S. and 1.55 million worldwide. As Alexandra Pear ’22 put it in her op-ed on Oct. 21, “Nobody is okay.”

Right now, we are entering what would be considered the most stressful time of the semester even during normal times — finals week — made even more challenging by the recent switch to remote learning. In the spring, when COVID-19 abruptly and traumatically sent most students home, we all had three weeks to adjust. There is an assumption that we have now adjusted to the pandemic and can proceed through the end of the semester like normal. But this semester, many students still had to completely pack up and travel across the country and the world, alongside a normal schedule of papers, exams and problem sets. We may have gotten used to remote learning, but that doesn’t erase its challenges, especially with all students now scattered across states and time zones. With spiking virus rates and remote learning, this finals period has the potential to be extremely taxing both mentally and physically, despite our ability to plan in advance. 

We are grateful to the professors who have approached this semester with sensitivity and empathy, and we ask that all professors continue this practice through finals week, with increased flexibility around deadlines and extensions. While the Pass/Fail policy is more flexible than ever this semester, it should also operate equitably. No student should feel the need to Pass/Fail a course they have worked hard in all semester because of an inability to succeed on their finals due to COVID-19, a challenging home life, lack of study space or anything else.

Looking to the near future, the College should anticipate a start to the term that will initially be cold, dark and for many students, isolating. For many first-years moving to campus after having studied remotely in the fall, this will be their first experience interacting with the College in person. We call for the College to prioritize thinking about how to anticipate increased student mental health needs, especially for particularly vulnerable students, including those in quarantine on campus, remote students, first-years and low-income and BIPOC students

The Record reported last month that students in quarantine faced a lack of communication and inadequate mental health support from the College while in quarantine. If we return to campus next semester, close contacts of positive cases should receive a call from a member of Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS), in addition to the contact information for the dean on call, in order to provide more proactive support. The College should also survey every student who went through mid-semester quarantine to improve the process the second time around. Meanwhile, newly arrived first-years will face the typical challenges that come with adjusting to college life at the start of the year. They should also receive proactive support and programming.

Next semester, students will have no break longer than four days, leading to the possibility of burnout. In place of spring break, the College has scheduled three “health days” — short breaks in April and May, as well as two days of additional Reading Period in March. When this plan was announced in October, we stressed that “it is more important than ever that faculty respect the short breaks that the calendar does provide… This may mean delaying major deadlines or exams so that they don’t happen immediately after health days; it may mean reducing reading assignments or problem sets; it certainly means canceling class meetings and rescheduling tutorial meetings that fall on health days.”

We reiterate our call to administrators and faculty to respect the health days. And we suggest that the College community treat health days not like a Reading Period, but a time for us to be in community with one another, to get together safely — something akin to Mountain Day. For those of us who were on campus this fall, Mountain Day was special: a reminder of the traditions that bind us together. So whether we celebrate our health days as Kite Day or Mountain Day II, we hope that the College will find similar ways to facilitate distanced outdoor gatherings.

In the long term, one way the College can better support students’ mental health is to enhance IWS’s offerings. Since January, there have been two options for one-on-one therapy sessions at IWS: weekly 30-minute sessions and 45-minute sessions every other week. Although that model allows for expanded access to one-on-one therapy for students who are on campus, those of us studying remotely outside of the state are legally prevented from taking advantage of counseling through IWS, and instead must use Talkspace or another provider. It is clear that students need more mental health support, and IWS must expand its non-clinical offerings accordingly. This winter, IWS is hosting a series of workshops — “IWS ChooseWell Winter ’21 – A New Year for You” — aimed at developing practices for wellbeing focused in five areas: rest, compassion, mindfulness, gratitude and self-care. All students, both remote and on-campus, can take part. We commend the College for putting together this program, and we urge IWS to continue offering this type of support, available to all students, during the spring semester. 

Thanks to the efforts of many people in the College community, we were able to have a safe semester on campus. But it was also a deeply difficult semester. Going forward, we ask the College, which has done a good job of ensuring the physical health of students on campus, to prioritize students’ mental health as well.