Fearful that Thanksgiving 2020 will turn out to be a super-spreader event for COVID-19, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a host of other colleges have announced that they are suspending all in-person classes after the late November holiday. That might seem like a sensible one-time reaction to a serious public health crisis, but we think it should become the new normal. It’s one of many ways that the virus gives us a chance to revise our habits for the better.
Thanksgiving break should have been rethought long ago. That’s because the typical rhythm of a fall semester -- attend classes for 12 weeks, rush home for a four-day break and return to campus to study frantically for two more weeks -- isn’t good for anyone. Not for the inhabitants of a warming planet, not for students battling emotional stress, not for faculty members concerned about learning outcomes.
Ending the semester before Thanksgiving would reduce the carbon footprint of colleges and universities. Students who attend four-year private institutions come from more than 250 miles away, on average, and many take multiple connecting flights to get home, only to return a few days later and then trudge home again two weeks later. One student traveling between home in San Francisco and Bowdoin College in Maine could take as many as nine connecting flights, and send over two tons of carbon into the atmosphere, releasing more in three weeks than the average citizen of India releases in a year.
Thanksgiving break is also a hardship for students who are struggling with depression and anxiety. For many who go away to college, late November is the first time many students are home in months. Family can be a hard readjustment, but even those students who look forward to going home often feel “complete dread” at the thought of turning back around and returning to campus just a few days later, according to a psychiatric counselor at a western flagship university whom we interviewed. The quick transition back to campus creates anxiety for students who struggle to extricate themselves from the security bubble of home as they look ahead to end-of-the-semester assignments and exams. For first-year students especially, the counselor observed, Thanksgiving break is a source of “panic attacks, anxiety attacks and tears.”
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving travel generates its own stresses: on the most heavily traveled weekend of the year, millions of cars clog the highways, and flights are both expensive and prone to delays. Students and faculty members regularly find themselves stuck overnight in airports. When they return to campus, they’re often behind on the syllabus, tired and hardly in a position to produce their best work at a crucial point in the semester.
And so, Thanksgiving break also gets in the way of learning. Students often find themselves forced to choose between skipping whole days of class and finding flights they can afford. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, faculty members commonly cancel classes that they know students won’t attend. Tuesday and Wednesday classes that seemed like a good idea back in September become impractical as students scramble to make arrangements that will allow them to squeeze in an extra day with their families. Professors cram in missed content and accelerate student workload just as things should be winding down. The last gasp of the semester, packed with deadlines and exams, is a kind of hectic final sprint.
Thanksgiving is just one example of ways that COVID-19 could open up opportunities to leave the well-trodden pathways of tradition in favor of much smarter alternatives. Colleges and universities, like all institutions, always risk becoming “path dependent” -- stuck in patterns inherited from the past that become like second nature, too inert to shift unless dramatic circumstances emerge.
Yet COVID-19 is one of those moments when institutions are being remade, and it lends us a rare opportunity to rethink all of our business as usual. In ordinary times, colleges and universities might be slow to recognize that Thanksgiving is itself an ideological inheritance that covers over a history of violent erasures of Indigenous people, but now is a perfect time to do so, as memorials to racist values are being torn down.
And once the carbon footprint of the academic calendar has our attention, why not become more intentional about the miles of travel that colleges and universities require employees to make more generally? Cornell University has begun exploring the idea that allowing administrators to work from home and rewarding faculty members who give remote research presentations will be crucial to campus sustainability.
As the economy starts reviving, we can see that emissions have already started sharply rising. This is the time for academic institutions to interrupt our habits so that we don’t just go back to the old normal.
Let’s seize the moment.