Burning Out: A Surrey Teacher’s Story


At the end of November, I received the following in an email from a parent of a student in my class: “I would like to inform you that we all got tested positive with COVID 19. I did call the office already to let them know about it.” Their kid hadn’t missed a day of school prior to testing. I began freaking out, not only because I was exposed, but also because I had been a failure to fill during the week, meaning that there was no TTOC to cover my absence, which resulted in multiple non-enrolling teachers rotating coverage in my room for blocks at a time over the days I was away.

(The TTOC I had originally booked was ordered to self-isolate over the 2 weeks as they had worked at Cambridge Elementary, which was one of the Surrey schools that had to self-isolate due to an outbreak. Also, having been a school on the Fraser Health exposure list, we have noticed we’re having difficulties getting TTOCs to come to our school and have had many, many failures to fill over the weeks, resulting in non-enrolling teachers being pulled from counselling, learning support, library, etc. to cover classes. Not only are students losing out, but I feel these teachers and cohorts are at a greater risk of more exposure.)

The office, although they had received the call from this parent, hadn’t told me “due to confidentiality”. Why are we trusted with so many other confidential personal and medical documents for our students, but not this? I was told I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about this. I agreed that the student’s name should be kept confidential, but couldn’t we at least share that we knew we had had an exposure in my room or the school? I was told I needed to wait for Public Health to do their job. With the known delays in Public Health’s contact tracing, this was not reassuring.

This is when my mental health took a turn for the worst. I immediately went to a COVID-19 testing site to get tested, then went home to self-isolate while waiting for results. That night, the news of another Surrey school, Newton Elementary, self-isolating due to an outbreak hit the news media. My colleagues at my school began sharing their anxieties and fears, promising that they would tell each other if they ever heard of any news at our school. “I would tell as I want to protect my colleagues. I feel it’s my moral obligation.” Due to fear of being disciplined, I stayed quiet.

I felt so isolated and powerless. I was scared of getting COVID. I cried all day Saturday. All weekend I didn’t leave my bedroom. I received my negative results, but those came with no relief. Anxious thoughts about it spreading in my room ran through my head. I have had parents straight up tell me they won’t test their child as “it’s just a cold”. I have students share they are still visiting with others outside their household despite health orders.

The “exposure” notice spanning 3 days was sent to our school staff and families over a week later. My students received an additional “self monitoring” letter 2 days later, stating that we needed to monitor for symptoms for 2 weeks, of which only 5 days were left.

Image: Susan Chung

A few days later, I was told that a parent of one of my students had tested positive. The parent asked if they could still send the child to school. How a child is not deemed a close contact is beyond me but the school managed to convince the parent to keep the student home. This student sits beside the other student who tested positive and I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they are asymptomatic and transmission is now occurring in my classroom. They only sit half a meter away from each other after all, as my class is maxed out with almost 30 kids.

A few days after that, I was alerted that another parent of a student of mine has tested positive and the student will be self-isolating. This is a student who rarely wears a mask as they are not mandatory in schools.

Both these cases will not count as official class exposures as both times the students were never tested. As the science shows that students tend to be asymptomatic, how can we be so sure there wasn’t an exposure and there isn’t transmission happening in my class?

That evening our school received another exposure notice. My letter stated it was not in my classroom, but as teachers know, there are no cohorts during recess and lunchtime play. Students are often mingling during these times, often without masks on.

Just before driving to work the next morning, I received an email from our band teacher that they have been identified as a close contact to someone who tested positive and must now self-isolate for 2 weeks, with an exposure date of 11 days prior. This teacher was just playing wind instruments with my students the day before. My anxiety skyrocketed. I called my mom in a panic on my way to work, contemplating several times if I should/could make a u-turn and go home. My mom said it shouldn’t be this way, “you shouldn’t be worried about your health and safety every time you go to work.”

I tried to do all I could to keep me and my students safe throughout the day. Encouraging masks be worn. Encouraging the washing of hands. Keeping my window and door open. Despite that, I had someone come into my classroom and state that it was “too cold” in my room and move to shut the door. I protested, stating it was a layer of protection against COVID-19, but they still insisted it only be open a crack. I was so upset and felt unsupported.

I drove home crying after work. I began feeling nauseous and had a headache, and while I knew it was probably stress and anxiety related, these are also symptoms on our daily health checklist and so I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be COVID. When I got home, my partner could immediately sense something was wrong and wrapped me in a hug. He urged me to stay home. I tried to explain how guilty I felt, like I was abandoning my students. Eventually, I booked the day off, but I don’t feel good about it as I’m afraid I will be a failure to fill again. I will be going to get another COVID test, just in case.

I am so upset that we are being put into this situation. There are MANY teachers going through similar things that I am. The winter break can’t come sooner. But will it be enough to recharge our mental health, especially when nothing is changing? As you can see from my experience, there are so many issues that our government is failing to address, including an increase of failures to fill, delays in contact tracing, transparency of positive cases connected to schools, cohorts mixing, overcrowding in classrooms that don’t allow for physical distancing, inconsistent mask wearing, and mental health. Teachers’ mental health is deteriorating at a rapid pace. They are sick of being told to access counselling for it. Counsellors can’t protect us and our students from contacting COVID-19.

One thought on “Burning Out: A Surrey Teacher’s Story”

  1. The way Schools have been treated…defeats my sense of logic and fairness. It makes no sense…None at all. Rates of Covid are dramatically rising . Pleas by government are rising. But transmissions in schools are ,frankly, ignored.
    Where teachers fit into government thinking is a continuing mystery.


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