Do students need a longer break in the fall? That's the question that the University of Guelph is trying to get feedback on, but they've been stymied because “What we heard back was all over the map,” according to Ray Darling, the Registrar for the U of G. A town hall on campus Wednesday night drew about 50 students, but no greater clarity in terms of what the majority of campus wants on the matter.
Presently, the University of Guelph takes one day off after Thanksgiving before starting classes again on the Wednesday, but the administration has been exploring the idea of taking a week-long Reading Week-style break in the fall. In recent years, other Ontario universities have initiated a week-long commensurate fall break, including nearby Wilfred Laurier and the University of Waterloo.
The trouble is that campus is fairly evenly divided on whether or not to go that way, and a decision needs to come soon if the break is to be scheduled for the 2018/19 school year. Groups including the Central Student Association, the Grad Students Council, the Senate, the Dean's Council, the Faculty Association, the Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness, and the Working Group on Academic Polices and Procedures were all consulted. A survey sent to all U of G students, in which between 4,700-4,800 people responded, was also unhelpful in coming up with a definitive decision.
“There wasn’t a strong view either way on these items, which is what you need in order to make a decision,” said Brenda Whiteside, Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs who conducted the town hall with Darling.
So what are the issues? Doesn't everyone want a week off in the middle of the fall semester? You would think so, but the situation would complicate other areas of the U of G schedule and routine.
For instance, adding a week off to the fall schedule would mean that the U of G would have to compensate with Sunday exams. Whiteside said that there's hesitancy about this, not because of religious observations on that day, but because it's a guaranteed break in the schedule. A couple of the students taking part in the town hall also noted the reduced transit schedule on Sundays, and not just Guelph Transit, but inter-city transit like GO also has reduced service on Sunday.
Darling, who was also the registrar at Laurier and Waterloo that facilitated the creation of a fall Reading Week at those universities, said that a Sunday exam day would be retooled to allow for transit limitations.
But scheduling exams on Sundays also comes with another unique challenge of revising the U of G's policy on exams. Presently, there's no allowance in policy for students to opt out of a situation where they have, for instance, three exams in a 24-hour period. Students can throw themselves on the mercy of the professor, but there's nothing ordering professors to show mercy in such a circumstance.
International students, and students that come to the U of G from outside the immediate vicinity in southern and southwestern Ontario, are another group uncertain about a fall Reading Week. Jayden, a fourth year student, said that it's impractical for her to go home for even a week long break because it takes her two days to get there and to get back. Increasing the length of the fall Thanksgiving break means that she and other students travelling to Guelph long-distance will have a longer, lonelier time on the relatively empty campus. That's probably not good for their mental health, which was the aim of this endeavour.
Interestingly, the Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness did not recommend the change, believing that a week off in the fall was probably not going to have any effect on the mental health of students. Sarah, a second year student who's presently an R.A., agreed saying that she was surprised to see how stressed her first years were in the fall, and blamed the long uninterrupted run without a break between Thanksgiving and Christmas for that stress. Still, some wondered if spacing out the semester with a longer break might still have the desired effect.
The town hall, and the comments of the attendants, was proving why a consensus was so difficult to achieve, so instead of a week long break in the fall, a motion for an additional day off was proposed for the joint committee: "That the schedule of dates be revised so the fall study break is extended by one additional day to include the Wednesday following Thanksgiving weekend, and that classes start one day earlier (beginning the Wednesday after Labour Day)."
Even this had some issues. Extending the Thanksgiving break by one day, means decreasing Orientation Week by one day, and Eric, a fourth year from Sudbury, thinks that's a greater loss for new students from far afield. "I knew no one in Guelph when I came here and that was overwhelming," he said. "Orientation Week was so so valuable because I needed that time to make Guelph my home."
Eric added that that the way he did that was to get involved with various campus groups, which he was introduced to in the comprehensives series of O-Week activities, and that schedule would have to be changed or condensed if O-Week lost a day. "The trade off isn’t worth it," he insisted.
Having Move-In on a Friday was also an option discussed, but in reality too impractical to pull-off given the road closures involved, and the fact that the parking lot behind the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) building at 1 Stone Rd E. is used as a staging area. Obviously the university can't ask ministry employees to take the day off.
So chances are that the U of G officials that came to the town hall searching for answers left with none. The U of G Senate will make a final decision on the fall break at their February meeting.