*Editor’s Note: Wednesday Journal agreed to change the names of the employees in the story to protect their identities. 

On a Thursday evening, Rebecca*, Mary* and Lisa* sat alone in quiet rooms inside their homes. The second week of the second semester was about to end, but the three veteran school teachers felt like they had already endured so much. The days felt longer like they were stitched together to create one endless loop only to break when new problems and concerns occurred. 

“We can be double-vaccinated and boosted. We can wear two masks. We can knock out any restaurant and only do the necessary shopping. We can wash our hands so our knuckles are bleeding every day, and you can still possibly get it.”

Mary, teacher

Earlier this month, after a two-week winter break, the three – who requested their names be withheld from the story to protect their identities – returned for in-person learning, joining dozens of staff and students. They walked into their classrooms, as another surge in COVID-19 cases took hold of communities near and far on top of new calls for a shorter quarantine and isolation period by public health officials. Rebecca, Mary and Lisa, all of whom work in the same local school district, braced themselves for the uncertainty. 

“I had no idea how bad it was going to be until that Monday [Jan. 3, the first day back from the holiday break],” said Rebecca, a longtime elementary school teacher. She received emails the night before about some students calling in absent because of COVID, opting for remote learning. And as that first week of the second semester progressed, more and more students at school were sent home because they started showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus. 

Echoing Rebecca, Mary said the omicron variant of COVID just added another level of stress, especially with school back in session. 

“We can be double-vaccinated and boosted. We can wear two masks. We can knock out any restaurant and only do the necessary shopping. We can wash our hands so our knuckles are bleeding every day, and you can still possibly get it,” said Mary, who like Rebecca has taught elementary school students for almost two decades. “That’s what’s so scary.” 

Like many nationwide, school officials across Oak Park and River Forest have also seen an explosion of COVID-19 cases since the start of the second semester. Just last week, Oak Park School District 97 declared a two-day adaptive pause, shifting K-8 students back to e-learning, as cases among staff and students tipped over 200 and placed hundreds more into quarantine. District 97 also reported outbreak cases at four elementary schools, according to school data. 

River Forest District 90 documented an outbreak case at Roosevelt Middle School last week, which stemmed from a seventh-grade class, and in the last month reported a total of 137 COVID-19 cases among staff and students. 

Education leaders at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 noted a similar rise in cases along with an uptick in employee and student absences. Staffing shortages due to COVID-19-related reasons have also presented another challenge.  

“When our colleagues, who you know are being super careful of getting [COVID] and several of them are pretty sure they got it from school, that’s where my anxiety comes from,” Rebecca said. 

Mary added, “That crazy scrambling of staff members and everybody being sick – I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m still like, ‘What the hell is happening?’” 

Besides that, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and Illinois School Board of Education (ISBE) adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest recommendation for a shorter quarantine and isolation period. That means, staff and students who now test positive for COVID-19 can return to school after a five-day isolation period, as long as they are symptom-free. Upon returning, they are required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors for another five days. School employees and students are not required to take a COVID-19 test after completing the five-day quarantine or isolation period. 

“It [the new recommendation] relies on trusting parents a lot, and I think the majority of our parents can be trusted, but there are some that just can’t be – who want their kids just to go to school, and that’s really frustrating,” Rebecca said. 

What’s more is that Oak Park and River Forest school districts are encouraging their staff and students to wear surgical face masks, and some have received help from local public health departments to supply them. But even that – something that is “supposed to be a positive thing” – has become an issue, Mary said.  

Unlike cloth masks, which are a bit more snug, Rebecca and Mary said the surgical face masks do not fit some of their younger students’ faces properly and retying the ear straps only creates gaps on the sides of masks. 

“Our day now starts with helping 20 kids get a mask,” Rebecca said, with her colleague Lisa interjecting, “and getting really close to them.” 

“And going around and adjusting everybody’s ear strap because their heads are too small,” Rebecca continued. 

Breaking point 

And then, there’s teaching. 

Because of COVID-19, teachers have rearranged student desks into rows, abiding by the 3 to 6 feet social distancing rules. 

For Rebecca, Mary and Lisa, who often encouraged their young students to interact with each other, their classrooms are a departure from their own values. Due to COVID-19 concerns, students are actively discouraged from sharing supplies or going to each other’s desk to help on an assignment or project. 

“It’s really punishing for kids,” Rebecca said. “It’s not collaborative. It’s not active. It’s not socially engaged. It’s locked down at your desk.”

On top of that, Mary expressed her frustrations on teaching her students both in-person and via online learning simultaneously. Illinois schools can provide virtual learning for students who are quarantined after being potentially exposed to COVID-19. That means, they can hop on Zoom or Google Meet and attend their class and perhaps, even participate and ask questions. 

“You’re constantly pivoting because you don’t know on a daily basis who’s going to be on your Zoom screen,” Mary said. “It’s anxiety-provoking because it’s almost like the nurse, who’s the main communicator, comes to your room or sends you a text or email. And it’s like ‘Oh no. Do I open it? Is it another student? Is it another positive case?’” 

“That just leads you down the fast track to teacher burnout so quickly,” she said. 

Lisa added teachers are also feeling the pressure from parents and administrators to keep up with education requirements and professional development courses while maintaining their day-to-day duties. The three are calling for more safety measures, including making sure that school buildings are routinely sanitized; additional COVID testing, especially for students in elementary schools and emotional support from administrators. 

“I feel like we are shouldering everything to make it [classrooms] running and personally being terrified [because of COVID-19]. … Every day I go to work, I’m like, ‘Should I even be here?’ Am I endangering [my family]?’ I can’t be at my best when I’m like that,” Lisa said, before bursting into tears. “I’m sorry to cry, but I feel like I’m also really strong, and this is breaking all of us.” 

Mary, too, has reached her own breaking points. 

“I am someone with grit and someone who’s a fighter and strong. I can handle this stuff, but I’m so worn out. I’m aging so fast. I’m feeling like my tank is empty on Monday – and I’ve never, ever felt this way in 20-plus years.” 

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