The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the 2020-2021 academic year for college students. This semester, however, students in the Boston area have to contend with the winter weather's impact on mental health and well-being during the pandemic.

A major change that distinguishes campus life in the spring from last semester is the complete elimination of indoor dining at Brandeis due to Massachusetts COVID-19 health guidelines for Foodservice Establishments, as made clear by signage in the University’s dining locations. For many students, this has been a negative change, as eating meals together is a social activity that brings people closer. A confession on the Brandeis Confessions Facebook page, a popular destination for students can anonymously post their random thoughts, concerns or questions, expresses these sentiments: “#5939 I understand what the school’s trying to do with not allowing indoor dining … [but] we’re already isolated enough because of COVID, and this is only going to make feelings worse and they’re especially amplified by seasonal depression, which plenty of us suffer from.” While students anxiously wait for the changing of the seasons and some return to normalcy, the Department of Student Activities and the Student Union have introduced new initiatives this semester for students to help combat the social isolation of winter and the continuing difficulties with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Justice spoke to Teri Tozzi, DSA's Student Activities Specialist, over Zoom on Feb. 10, and she explained how the development of the BrandICE ice skating rink was organized. “The pandemic definitely inspired the creation of the ice skating rink … last semester. It was brought up in a meeting and was spearheaded by the Department of Athletics, [who] worked with Facilities to make the rink a reality,” said Tozzi. The ice skating rink has been constructed on an outdoor tennis court behind the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center and is currently undergoing a trial-run period this semester to gauge the popularity of the new facility among students. If it attracts a large number of students, Tozzi said, it could potentially return annually. 

Tozzi noted the social benefits of the ice rink. “It’s great because it allows students to have an outdoor activity that they can participate in. Student Activities will be hosting ice skating events throughout the winter … with hot chocolate and music … and the ice skating rink is reservable, so if student organizations are interested in hosting private events it’s something they can look into,” said Tozzi.

The DSA is supporting the programming of the Athletics Department, which has put together the month-long We ‘B’ Wellness Challenge running from Feb. 8 to March 9, by hosting events that are worth points. Students can participate in a number of activities, including using Gosman facilities like the gym or the ice skating rink, attending Intramural Sports events, and participating in virtual fitness classes, to accumulate points and enter a weekly raffle to win prizes. This challenge aims to encourage students to keep their mental and physical well-being in check. 

The Brandeis Booths in the Fellows Garden near the Shapiro Campus Center are another space introduced to campus this winter. One way they have been used so far is to host the ongoing We Wear Blue events, which were monthly events last fall but now take place every Friday. Students can participate either in-person or virtually by wearing blue or Brandeis gear to get free Brandeis merch. “The program has really grown throughout the time of its existence, and we have been getting around 150-200 students attending every Friday. … It’s a really good way to build community and have pride within Brandeis,” said Tozzi. Student clubs can also reserve the Brandeis Booths for grab-and-go or tabling events.   

According to a Feb. 16 email with Casey Russo, capital project manager of Facilities Services, the funding for the rental of the rink’s boards and associated parts in addition to its maintenance comes from the Brandeis Campus Preparedness Project. According to Russo, “This project [was also] responsible for [the funding of] signage, plexiglass, tents, HVAC enhancements, workplace and classroom modifications, cleaning supplies, testing site support, and the Brandeis booths.”

While Brandeis has welcomed back around 1,900 students to campus — an increase from the fall semester — a large number of off-campus students remain limited to virtual involvement, which may not be as exciting as the in-person campus events offered. Although the DSA has increased the amount and variety of virtual activities it offers, such as Bingo and Trivia Tournaments, Tozzi noted that attendances range from 15-30 participants on average, which is much lower than the attendance of in-person events. This points toward a larger issue of the virtual format, which not only discourages student participation and involvement in activities but can make it more difficult to stay engaged with academic studies.

The Justice also spoke to Krupa Sourirajan ’23, Vice President of the Student Union, on a Feb. 12 Zoom call, during which she stressed the Student Union’s emphasis on advocating for improving students’ mental health this semester in the form of both virtual and in-person initiatives. 

The biggest change that the Student Union helped to implement this semester is the requirement of a 10-minute break during Zoom classes to help remedy the lack of focus that comes along with the online way of learning. “The Student Union realized last semester, with online classes, that we were experiencing a lot of burn-out and Zoom fatigue and our fellow students were also. [By] continuously talking to the Dean and Associate Dean of [The School of] Arts and Sciences, [the] Registrar and Academic Services, we were able to push out that initiative,” said Sourirajan. The Student Union also gathered student feedback directly through a Facebook poll on how students would like classes to be structured for the upcoming fall semester. The majority of students voted to continue the current system of 30 minute breaks in between the end of one class and the beginning of the next class, she said. 

“The Student Union appreciates feedback from students on how we can best support them, whether it be through events or advocacy,” said Sourirajan. “Every day, things are changing in terms of COVID regulations … so we’ve been combatting this pandemic, learning from it and advocating for issues we can possibly have a say in,” she added.  

Sourirajan further provided insight into a potential in-person, campus-wide event that is currently under discussion for the near future. “Something that [Student Union President] Kendal [Chapman] and I want to make happen this semester is a Feel-Good Day — sort of a play off of Kindness Day — where we’ll have flowers around campus to give to someone to make their day … and give out hot chocolate, t-shirts, masks. It has been a tough past year, so we just want to celebrate everyone for getting through it,” said Sourirajan.    

The burn-out that Sourirajan refers to affects many aspects of student life and engagement. But there are many creative ideas that Brandeis has put into action that continue to offer opportunities for students to stay as engaged as possible under the circumstances. It is undoubtedly difficult at times to drag ourselves out of our residence hall rooms or retain the motivation to log onto Zoom for virtual events or involvement, but perhaps doing just that and staying involved with our community will help get us through this particularly challenging winter.