Student burnout during the pandemic

How much longer can we be expected to keep this up?

We’re at the point where there are only a few weeks left in this strange fall semester. There seems to be a consensus among students that it is not just the circumstances of the world making this semester difficult, but that online schooling itself is its own challenge. 

While the format of learning might have changed this fall, the expectations put upon students have remained the same while outside stresses about finances, personal safety, the safety of family members and the inability to go home for a break all intensify. In short: students are burnt out.

So what does burnout look like? Because some individuals might be burnt out without even knowing it. Burnout is exhaustion, disengagement, frustration and lack of motivation that come as a result of consistent and enduring stress. That dread you feel doing schoolwork, the immense effort it takes to do even the smallest of tasks or the disinterest in things you once cared about, these can all be signs of burnout.

Amanda Unger, a sophomore studying Political Science and Sociology here at NDSU discussed her current circumstances, “I’m mentally exhausted… Because I spend so much time sedentary I am weakening my immune system as well, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing living in a dorm where I share a bathroom with 40 other girls.”

Obviously, burnout can pervade the classroom and affect students’ physical well-being (which seems like precisely the thing to avoid during a pandemic). More than this, many students have been introduced to a new phenomenon: Zoom fatigue. Zoom fatigue is a term that refers to the inability to focus and the exhaustion resultant from spending hours in online meetings. 

A sophomore in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at NDSU, who we’ll refer to as Alex, explained, “Having back-to-back classes on Zoom is tiring, and long lectures are difficult to pay full attention to towards the end.” 

More than this, Alex has been having physical symptoms from spending all day at their computer, “I have also experienced eye strain. Staring at the screen for lectures and then completing assignments online usually results in a full day of staring at a screen.”

Students are spending most of their time boring into a laptop in what has become a dystopian-trope turned reality. Besides the physical consequences of this type of learning, Johns Hopkins University Press found that long-term burnout can lead to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. 

The continuous stress students face has real consequences on their health, and it’s not just a minority of students that are struggling. The National Library of Medicine published a study that found that 71 percent of students were experiencing increased levels of anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

In an informal survey where I polled 100 NDSU students and asked if they were feeling burnt out as a result of pandemic-style learning, 83 percent responded that they were. Knowing that students aren’t alone in their struggles isn’t enough if nothing is being done to alleviate those worries. And what might those worries be? Well, here the list is extensive.

The most obvious source for anxiety at this time is of course the coronavirus pandemic. Especially here in North Dakota, a place that has one of the highest per-capita infection rates in the world. With a surge in cases across the country, there is one model that predicts that by the end of this year, 2,000 Americans will be dying daily due to the virus. 

If the risk of safety to students and their loved ones weren’t enough, the fact that classes are functioning as per-usual, despite the dramatic changes to the learning format, is enough to challenge even the most studious of us. 

As Unger puts it, “This semester has been much more difficult than previous semesters. The workload has stayed consistent in comparison to previous semesters, but the learning has been much more difficult.”

I, and many other students, can likely relate to Unger’s sentiment. It feels this fall as if the list of things to do has grown exponentially as the amount of time to do everything has shrunk. Whether a misconception about extra time during the pandemic, or simply the result of having to spend such large stretches of time self-teaching, the burdens placed on students really seem unmanageable. 

On top of this, finances have always been a concern for college students, but the pandemic is exacerbating economic pressures. While struggling to afford college themselves, students may have to deal with unemployment, either out of a lack of opportunity or an inability to find any position they deem safe.

At home, they may have parents or loved ones who are out of work or may even be suffering the financial loss that accompanies a family wage earner recovering from the virus or passing away. 

Unger reiterated some of these concerns, “I am worried and trying to stay positive about my family’s financial situation. My mom got COVID over the summer and she has a lung disease so it has been very difficult for her to transfer back to doing things she used to… I [often] think I am being selfish spending so much at school when we could be using that money to pay for food and utilities.”

What some students might have been worried about only a year ago, finishing assignments on a Saturday night, affording a Spring Break trip or choosing a bar to attend on the weekend, are replaced by worries about social isolation, family members getting sick and passing away, the responsibility of their classmates and it might just happen that school is the very last thing they have the emotional capacity to address.

For many, the promise of returning home for Thanksgiving break might have been the one thing allowing them to get through this difficult time. However, President Dean Bresciani recommended that students stay here over the break to keep the virus from further spreading on campus. While this decision seems prudent, as Alex said, “Some students have not seen their family in months and live a long distance away from school.”

If students who live on campus are suffering from burnout, and the chances are high that many of them are, and they are not allowed to return home, they will receive no break from the current anxiety they may be experiencing. 

Students may very well feel trapped. They either have to stay on campus and continue to feel mentally and physically worse, or go home and face endangering classmates and friends on their return. Normally I would always encourage the safer option, but the truth is that the decision should not be left in the hands of students who will face an unideal outcome either way. 

Requiring students to refrain from going home merely to keep up the facade of a safe and lively campus for a few more weeks is unfair to the students and dangerous to the public.

If classes were to be moved fully online from Thanksgiving until Christmas students would likely be much safer at home with their families than in residence halls filled with hundreds of other people. To pretend that a move to have students stay over break is about anything other than not having to give out refunds on housing, and even to pretend it’s about public health, is shameful.

This sentiment is not lost on the students. “As far as the administration I think it has been very telling to how much this school is run like a business and how much we value the coin over students’ health and well-being,” Unger stated. 

If we want to truly help students, and help avoid burnout, we need to take several steps. The first would be to make mental health resources more readily available. Many students know about the Counseling Center, but don’t know how to take the first step in setting up an appointment or reaching out for help.

I also think it important to provide pass/fail options for students. Many professors are incredibly understanding, and they certainly are in no easy position with Hyflex teaching either. However, many professors have yet to adjust their expectations for students, or worse, have increased the workload for their classes to adjust to the new teaching method and students can’t keep up.

To expect every professor to change their curriculum is foolish, but by allowing students to take certain classes pass/fail, they won’t have their stress dictated by the grade of a class they may feel they are teaching themselves. I understand not every course works well under this model, and that yes, some students will take advantage of the pass/fail option, but with everything going on I think now is the perfect time for grace with grading.

 Finally, and most importantly, NDSU students should be allowed the option, if not heavily encouraged, to return home for the remainder of the semester (with the ability to receive a refund on their housing). Having students on campus has never been safe, never been honorable and whether or not some students are happy to stay on campus does not change the fact that doing so is grossly irresponsible on the part of NDSU’s administration. 

Students are still meeting in mass numbers, they are still having parties. Yet those who are not may suffer the consequences of getting the virus and spreading it to family members or having to remain in quarantine over the winter holiday break. If burnout is a result of constant stress, I think worrying about getting and spreading the virus in the hot-spot Fargo has become is an incredibly valid stressor. 

This has been an extremely trying semester, students have been faced with a variety of heavy burdens. We should do everything we can to alleviate their stress. 

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