The chaos and uncertainty of this semester — and our collective achievement to make it nevertheless happen in person — warrants a real break and a pat on the back. This is true for everybody on campus: not only students, but faculty, administrators and maintenance and dining staff. For everyone’s sake, the best thing would be to cancel finals, or at least make them optional.
For all that we did to bring in-person learning back to campus, this semester has been anything but normal. Club operation is restricted, we’ve experienced limited access to the library and Roberts Pavilion, and each week we pray not to receive an email notifying us of a positive test and imminent relocation to quarantine.
Some of our peers did get sick, suffering weeks of disruption to learning. Even the small measures have an isolating effect, such as the plastic screens separating us and the inability to read the facial expressions behind our masks. We no longer have the simple pleasure of ignoring emails from the administration — a luxury often overlooked in the past — because we all know that a serious outbreak will send us home.
The ever-present disruptions and uncertainties exact a significant toll. COVID-19 has had a significant effect on mental health — meta-analysis indicates depression rates have increased sevenfold compared to where they were pre-pandemic, and anxiety rates are elevated as well. Notably, depressive symptoms have persisted more than a year into the pandemic, and data has shown this is especially true for young people. Students in particular have been affected, and are exhibiting depression rates significantly higher than most other groups.
Where are students turning for support? Well, most are relying on friends and family, as one might expect. However, a recent study revealed that only 2.5 percent of students identified their university as a significant source of support during COVID-19. Just for comparison, 3.4 percent of students said they felt supported by the streaming service Netflix.
Students need some kindness and compassion from the school. It’s well known that academic stress is correlated with anxiety and depression — and a study since the pandemic began showed students identifying final exams as their greatest source of stress. Moreover, overloading the brain’s working memory system — perhaps by cramming before exams — has been shown to reduce activity in brain regions central to the suppression of negative emotions.
An announcement allowing students to opt out of exams would prevent such negative effects, model a compassionate gesture and serve as a meaningful acknowledgement of the weight that each of us has carried to make an in-person semester possible. Canceling finals would provide a lift to our collective psyche, and we could use it.
Moreover, we deserve it.
I’m pleased but surprised that we’ve made it this far without switching back to online classes, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Cases were spiking when we returned in August, and an outbreak felt inevitable. Yet thanks to outstanding planning and our community effort, that outbreak never materialized. The importance and value of that community effort deserves to be recognized and celebrated.
Colleges across the United States have seen hundreds of thousands of cases this year. In one week before Thanksgiving, the UC Berkeley football team had 44 players test positive. In comparison, here at Pomona College, we’ve had 34 cases total since classes began, including those among faculty and staff. The student test positivity rate has been 0.08 percent, more than 10 times lower than the overall rate in Los Angeles County for the same timeframe.
That’s simply astounding. From a community health standpoint, this semester has been a resounding success. Our collective achievement in keeping campus safe and allowing classes to proceed in person was an extraordinary feat — one that meaningfully improved the college experience for thousands of our peers.
That achievement is far more important than anything we might accomplish during finals week. Cancel the exams, lift our spirits and end this strange semester on a happy note.
Rob Zintl PO ’23 is from Brookline, Massachusetts. He is a new transfer student majoring in politics.
Julia Haudenschield SC ’23 is from New York, New York. She is majoring in mathematics and psychology.