SUNY New Paltz students are tired, distraught, stressed and overworked this semester, which begs the question: what can they do about it?
Two weeks ago, third-year theatre arts major Dom Torrez started a petition on behalf of the New Paltz Grove Collective — a small group of students whose mission is to take initiative due to decisions of the SUNY New Paltz administration and guide them to make tangible changes, and to allow the voices of the student body to be heard.
The petition lists “actions that would be conducive to creating a better learning environment”: one, the reconfiguration of “Mind, Body and Spirit” days to allow students to have actual downtime away from schoolwork; two, the reinstatement of the pass/fail (P/F) grading option operating as it did in the spring 2020 semester; three, furthering the education of professors regarding a virtual learning environment; and four, transparency between students and administrators regarding fees and where they are allocated.
“These concerns are incredibly personal and something we are passionate about changing, which is why the petition exists. We also recognize that these issues have become practically universal for our peers all over campus so when we began putting together our demands, we were taking input and concerns from students beyond ourselves,” said representatives from the Grove. The group preferred to respond to questions as a collective.
The idea of the Grove Collective sprouted from friendly conversation. Soon, they realized education during the COVID-19 era needs to be altered, and not just by small fixes. The Grove includes Torrez, two third-year theatre arts majors, Hunter Lypen and Will Galarneau, third-year anthropology and geology major Naomi Hertz, and third-year anthropology major Benn Cook.
“We like to consider the Grove as a movement of the student body as opposed to a specific group or ‘club,’” the Grove said.
At first, the goal of the petition was 1,000 signatures, but as of Nov. 10, nearly 1,300 students have signed, bringing it closer to its new 1,500 signature goal.
When signing the petition, students are offered the option to make a post as to why they signed. One called it the “worst semester of my college education,” while another said “I’m so burnt out I want to drop out every single day.” Comments similar to these filled the responses.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, reports from a study conducted at Texas A&M University said that 44% of its participants — all of whom were students currently enrolled in a university — reported an increase in depressive thoughts. This is due to the fact that “students are struggling with family health, keeping grades up and trying to keep in touch with friends who are often further away than ever before,” as previously reported in the New Paltz Oracle.
Academic burnout is another concern, as students struggle to balance keeping up with their grades, attendance and overall well-being, concerns that are heightened during a semester that is unlike any other. To limit the spread of COVID-19, the fall 2020 semester began on Aug. 24 and will end on Dec. 8. In this 15-week period, there were no schoolwide days off.
On Sept. 29, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Barbara Lyman and Vice President for Enrollment Management David Eaton, emailed an update to students regarding the cancelation of spring break “in order to keep the COVID-19 case count low,” as previously reported in the Oracle.
Next semester will run from Jan. 19 to May 13, but will include “Mind, Body and Spirit Days” on Feb. 9, Feb. 24, March 11, April 9 and April 19 — days which will replace spring break.
These days were added in an attempt to give students days off while limiting the spread of COVID-19 by canceling spring break. However, students — especially The Grove Collective — have been vocal to administrators in their belief that these days will not be a day where students will be able relax, but will instead have to focus on getting more work done.
“The main premise of spring break — which is an opportunity for rest and stress release for students and faculty — must be honored. The current plan of ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ days is laughable at best. The days are scattered across the semester calendar in an attempt to accommodate scheduling and there has been no real insurance that professors cannot assign work nor expect work to be due on those days,” the Grove said. “Additionally, if next semester’s workload proves to be anything like this one’s, students will feel obligated to use those days to catch up on work, or they simply will not be able to finish assignments.”
“We aren’t asking for spring break back because we know that’s not feasible; what we want is the opportunity to reconsider how we structure our days off in order to utilize the time for respite. What we really want is an opportunity to be a part of that decision making because we know that if a student had been in the room, the outcome would’ve looked different.”
The Grove says that academic burnout is already happening, and the student body has been forced to learn a usual semester’s worth of material in a fraction of the time, as last fall’s semester ended on Dec. 19. Trying to cram a semester into a shortened time frame isn’t an easy task, and the added stress of a global pandemic only makes it that much harder.
“That doesn’t take into account the emotional exhaustion of grief, isolation, anger, confusion, anxiety and so on that we’re all experiencing in reaction to the pandemic, to the racial injustice in this country, to American politics and to the overall year we have experienced in 2020,” the Grove said. “It isn’t just academic burnout. What we need from New Paltz is empathy, compassion and an opportunity to allow students to be a part of the decision making, because who understands our experience better than those who are living it?”
The Grove respects the efforts that have been taken by SUNY New Paltz administrators regarding the health and safety of the community, and appreciate being able to say their semester was not shut down or completely virtual.
But along with students’ fight against the coronavirus, mental and day-to-day physical well-being must take precedent.
The petition’s second demand, regarding the pass/fail (P/F) option for the fall 2020 semester, defends this narrative, as the Grove says the same level of work cannot be expected from students as this is a difficult time in their lives, and a more understanding and empathetic mindset is the most fundamental aspect regarding the health of the student body, be it mental or physical.
At a recent town hall meeting between administration and students, most responses to student concern were nothing more than “we hear you,” the Grove said. Since the meeting, a slight change to the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading system has been announced.
In an email from Lyman, Eaton and College Registrar Stella Turk, students were told they are now allowed to elect S/U for two more courses, in addition to the normal two allowed, with the deadline to elect this option extended to Dec. 1.
“We have heard student concerns expressed in the recent open letter and town hall, and are taking action to add flexibility to grading options,” the email read. “… While not the same as an unlimited P/F option, the S/U expansion will provide significant relief that many students need under our current circumstances.”
The third demand of the Grove’s petition is the furtherance of technology-based education for faculty and professors in order to make a virtual classroom more accessible, understandable and a place to succeed.
“We don’t mean to discredit the professors who have gone above and beyond in the virtual classroom, however we must acknowledge that the quality of most students’ education and experiences have dropped significantly,” the Grove said.
The petition states that the requirement to take a class on teaching in a virtual environment should be reinstated, and “an accessible education should be provided to professors on any technology they are required to use, and this time should be compensated.”
The fourth and final demand is a transparency between the administration of SUNY New Paltz and students regarding where tuition and other fees are distributed. Attempting to meet the demand, a “transparent summary” was shared on Sept. 22 giving students a “broad-based” summary of the fee breakdowns. However, the only fees explained were technology, health services and athletics, without any specific numbers given other than overall regular and new services that are provided.
“We are asking for more transparency on fees and tuition because we simply don’t know anything about how it is applied. There is no way for us to know which information is most important because we know nothing. The desire is to understand the whole before focusing on any one aspect. All of the information the school has given us as students is qualitative, and we want quantitative information on where the money we pay them goes,” the Grove said.
The Grove believes that both the expansion of the S/U grading option and the broad-based fee breakdown “feel very much like steps taken to placate students instead of taking their concerns and proposed solutions to heart.”
“We think the question is actually whether or not New Paltz plans to take us seriously … We won’t settle for being dismissed. The support behind the petition and everything it expresses reaches well beyond this small group, and eventually the administration is going to have to acknowledge it in its entirety.”
After reaching their petition’s signature goal, the Grove Collective will work to start contacting the SUNY New Paltz administration directly. At first, the Grove wanted to gauge how much support they could gain, and didn’t expect such a large virtual turnout.
“Now is the time to take it to those in power directly,” they said. “We plan on drafting emails to President Christian and other administrative figures to direct their attention to the cause; we will also be providing email templates for any interested parties to continue bolstering the message. In the meantime, we continue to plan and organize.”
To follow the Grove and their efforts, find them on Instagram @np.grove.collective or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.