Sanitizing desks, frequent hand-washing and reminding students to pull up their masks take up a large part of Menlo-Atherton High School teacher Mallory Byrne's days. In addition to her typical teaching duties and COVID-19 hygiene procedures, Byrne is contending with the anxiety that comes from finding out a student is sick.
Although COVID-19 transmission rates have remained fairly low on the Atherton school's campus — 28 cases have been reported at the school of around 2,200 students they returned full time to classrooms in August — and she's received a single notification that one of her students tested positive, it’s exhausting constantly wondering if she may be exposed.
"I'm wondering 'Was my mask on tight enough today?'" said Byrne, who teaches ethnic studies and U.S. history. She gets tested twice a week on campus. "It's anxiety-inducing. Some days I just want to go to sleep (when I get home). ... I do feel some relief because I'm vaccinated, but I would feel more relief when we have viable treatments."
Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent Darnise Williams said that transmission rates are low (less than 1%) on campuses because of safety precautions such as masking and air filtration systems.
Mixed feelings and burnout
Teachers have had varying perspectives about being back on campus. M-A physical education teacher Craig Carson said he has received a couple of notices that he’s been exposed to COVID-19 during classes.
"We were outside the first six weeks so masks were optional," he said in an Oct. 12 email. "Most students still wore them and no one seemed nervous. We have been in the main gym the last two weeks and the students have been really good about wearing their masks and again do not seem nervous at all. Overall, I think I'm probably a little more relaxed than most of our staff."
Another M-A teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said it's been anxiety-inducing to receive three exposure notices so far this year. Many of their colleagues have received three or four notices since school started. They reminded students that the masks are "not a chin diaper" when they fall down their noses.
"I get excited when I go in because I'm going to find out whether I have it or not," they said, noting they get tested weekly.
The teacher is frustrated with how contact tracers are classifying if someone is a close contact. Teachers often walk throughout the classroom to work with students, and there are instances in which they are exposed to students for more than 15 minutes at a time that are not being taken into account by contact tracers, they said.
Administrators make the assumption teachers are simply at the front of the classroom the whole period lecturing, they noted.
"There's a disconnect between what is this close contact if the administration doesn’t know what teachers are doing in the classroom," they said.
In general, returning to classrooms during a pandemic has caused some anxiety, said M-A Principal Karl Losekoot in an Oct. 4 email.
"At the start of the year, the COVID notifications certainly caused some alarm and concern, but as we have continued to communicate what such notices mean and as we now offer on-site testing two days a week, I believe much of the early anxiety has dissipated," he said. "We are all concerned about mitigating spread, and coming back to school in the midst of COVID adds a few details for us to be attentive to when we would prefer to just focus on teaching and learning. Being back full-time has been both exciting, fun and tiring. ... But for students and teachers alike, being back in school and following our normal, pre-COVID, schedule, means adjusting back to like where teachers teach five classes a day and students are going to six or seven classes throughout the day."
For Susan Nicholls, a second grade teacher at Sandpiper Elementary in Redwood City, the return to school has felt safe and relatively normal. There have been just 15 cases reported in the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District since school began, according to a district data dashboard.
Nicholls described some discomfort knowing that a small number of teachers are not vaccinated and said she supports a mandate for students and staff. About 95% of district teachers are fully vaccinated, according to a media report. But Nicholls is heartened by mask and sanitation compliance, staggered schedules, and an overall sense of people looking out for each other.
But for others, the added responsibilities and anxieties of returning to school during a pandemic have been harder to manage.
Infrequent and relatively mild COVID cases have created "the illusion of safety," said Erinn Washburn, a middle school music teacher in the district and president of the Redwood City Teachers Association (RCTA). Director of Communications Jorge Quintana said that all 391 certified employees responded to a district-wide survey and that 98.5% of RCSD employees are fully vaccinated.
But even with low numbers, some teachers are reaching a breaking point, Washburn said.
"Teachers are definitely feeling it. I'm hearing it all over the place. It's overwhelming," they said, adding that understaffing has exacerbated the situation. "They're like, 'This is not sustainable. I cannot keep doing this. I can't keep working 12-hour days. I can't keep working every Saturday. This isn't gonna work.'"
The teacher shortage predated COVID-19, but it's only gotten worse since then, said San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee. A National Education Association's survey of 2,690 members conducted in May found that 32% of education workers who responded reported the pandemic has spurred them to want to leave the profession earlier than expected.
"Some people are burned out, some people are making different kinds of priority choices with their lives — moving to be closer to family," she added. Magee noted constant media coverage of schools during the pandemic might have scared some potential teachers away. "Education and schools were often a top headline. So it didn't necessarily look appealing from afar."
While other industries have been similarly impacted by the pandemic, Magee thinks the effect has been felt more profoundly in schools.
"We can't really hang a sign in the window and say, 'Be patient with us, we're understaffed. It might take a little longer to get your food,' or something like that," she said. "You've got 30 kids showing up in your classroom every day ready to learn, and we need to be responsive. So it's been pretty tough."
Overwhelmed with contact tracing and wanting to provide on-site testing to staff, the Sequoia district signed a contract with Worksite Labs to carry some of the load school health staff members were facing. The group began administering tests on school campuses on Sept. 20. Testing is available Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on at least one district site per day. Worksite Labs is also assisting with contact tracing.
"We noticed on the third day of school that there are not many people out there who want to do this work," said Jarett Dooley, the Sequoia district's student services director, during a Sept. 8 school board meeting. "I got to meet with our health staff yesterday and they are ready to feel some of the relief. … This has consumed us, but that's OK. This is some of the most important work."
Sequoia district Health & Wellness Coordinator Javier Gutierrez noted contact tracing is a huge endeavor, with each student exposed to 200 different peers from the six classes they take. Most transmission is happening outside of school and the indoor mask mandate has been effective, he said.
Behavioral and mental health challenges
Both Magee and Washburn pointed to increased behavioral issues among students as another significant challenge facing their staff members. Students starting sixth or seventh grade in 2020, for example, are now entering high school having missed most of middle school in person
"Kids just kind of forgot how to act in school," said Washburn, who's heard reports of bad classroom etiquette and occasional fights. They said overworked teachers are doing their best to address social-emotional issues as they arise. "If there's behavior stuff that's coming up … or if somebody says something racist, you have to have the time to be like, 'Whoa, let's stop and look at what just happened right here. And let's dissect that a little bit.'"
Magee has heard similar stories.
"Coming out of a traumatic experience, you're going to have people who are what we call 'dysregulated,' their emotions aren't really in balance," she said. "People are more short with each other. There's more conflict. There's not as much resilience or flexibility in people's spirits."
M-A English teacher Abbie Korman told the school board during its Sept. 8 meeting that she would like to see the district offer more mental health support to students and teachers who are struggling with the impacts of the pandemic.
"I've been told our mental health professionals are seeing more students than ever before and need more resources and more space," Korman said after the student advisory council presented students' perspective on the return to school to the district's governing board on Sept. 22. Some 27 students offered feedback for the council's survey. "I'm frustrated a survey wasn't administered by the district. The district would have a much further reach (than the students). What new mental health supports have been put in place after this monumental return from a once in a lifetime event?"
According to Magee, the county has made addressing these issues a top priority.
"We have a large body of experts here at the county office providing training and local support to school districts in specifically mental health and social-emotional well-being," she said.
But more trainings also means more work for the teachers, something Washburn, the union president, is concerned about.
"Report cards are coming up here real soon, the first trimester is almost coming to a close," they said. "It's just a whole bunch of stuff happening all at once."