Students received an email on Nov. 20 from Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau announcing that the start of the Winter 2021 semester will likely be delayed. Extending the holiday break, which would have only been 12 days for students whose finals end the last day of the exam period, will allow students and staff alike to recuperate after a strenuous, unprecedented online semester. Although the announcement has sparked optimism among students, the administration stalled on the issue for several weeks. From student petitions to swifter and similar decisions by other institutions, including the University of Toronto (UofT) and Concordia University, the urgency of extending winter break has long been obvious.
Although it is important to maintain university governance norms, the fact that a final decision will not be made until the Dec. 2 Senate meeting cannot simply be excused as a result of procedural convention. McGill’s apparent impotence is both symptomatic of persistent academic austerity and a direct result of bureaucratic blockage that continuously chokes progress at this supposedly trailblazing university.
McGill’s foot-dragging on the issue will inconvenience international students who choose to return home for the break. After all, many will need to quarantine for 14 days upon their return, and any who would now like to return home in light of an anticipated break extension will have to delay their plans for every day that McGill continues to postpone publicizing its new break timeline.
Practical considerations aside, by not prioritizing developing an extension plan sooner, McGill has disregarded student and staff wellbeing. The break period after the Fall 2020 semester was originally four days shorter, a significant oversight considering the seemingly glaring mental health concerns that would predictably arise from an online semester. Moreover, even in a normal year, burnout rates run high towards the end of the semester, and the mid-year break allows students, professors, and teaching assistants to reset and focus on personal, physical, and mental health. Now, the pandemic has exacerbated the anxieties that already dominate academic life, fomenting a mental health crisis so bad that the Quebec government has retroactively invested millions of dollars in services to assuage it.
Of course, extending the break period is not a simple logistical matter. Administrators have countered calls for an extension, arguing that they would need to make up for it by shortening the winter semester finals period, as international students and others who have leases that end in May could be forced to simultaneously juggle exams and changes in living arrangements. They have also expressed concerns that students from some departments would not be able to meet accreditation requirements. Even so, these arguments should not trump the health imperatives of recovering from the semester. Besides which, more preparation time would benefit professors and staff, who will need time to adjust the academic calendar and course schedules to McGill’s changing and inconsistent policies—especially considering that McGill has pledged to expand in-person instruction next semester.
It is also difficult to believe that administrators are seriously concerned about the impact on international students or accreditation problems when other universities with significant international student populations, such as UofT, have already lengthened the period by a week. Concordia made its decision even earlier, although its international population is admittedly smaller. It is not unreasonable to question why McGill cannot be equally flexible. Nor is it unfair to lament that McGill does not appear to value the welfare of its students and staff when its peer institutions clearly seem to appreciate them more—not least while McGill purports to be a leading university.
McGill students can use a break to prepare for another arduous semester. Although the fall term is nearing its end, remote course delivery was beset by McGill’s innumerable inconsistencies. Winter will be no different unless administrators enshrine transparency in their policies and expediency in their actions, to make McGill a refuge for student Martlets rather than leaving them to flounder in bewildering blizzards of miscommunication and indifferent inconsideration.