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.

Clearing the Misinformation

At every Covid-19 update for the past few weeks, there is a statement made about how critical it is for students to be back at school. The subtext of these statements is  “…but teachers are not being co-operative”.

Teachers fully understand the importance of school for children and teens and we want to teach students in classrooms, face-to-face. What we don’t want is to risk our lives in order to do our jobs.

I’ve not heard of any teacher dying from a flu they caught at school. No teacher has died from being around students who have measles or mumps.
Covid-19 is not in the same category as the flu as we’ve been told for months so please don’t tell us something different now.

The reason education assistants, teachers, vice-principals, and principals have concerns about the Restart plan is because we are the adults who actually spend time with children in schools. We know what students and schools are like. We are not pontificating about the importance of schools from an air-conditioned office while relying on memories of school from decades ago.

Image by Susan Chung

We adapted to Emergency Remote Teaching in the spring. We need time to prepare for Blended Learning in the fall. We have not said that we are against a combination of online and face-to-face learning. We have said we don’t want to double our workload.

It’s infuriating to have to listen to lectures on the importance of school for students’ mental health when every teacher knows about dozens of students who have suffered because of a lack of psychologists and counsellors in schools for decades.

It’s infuriating to hear about schools being important for students’ health as long as Adopt-A-School has to exist to provide for schools what governments fail to.

It’s infuriating to continue to be ignored when we voice our concerns based on our professional experience and knowledge. We’re treated as though we are idiots when many of us have Master’s degrees and decades of experience in classrooms.

We are being gaslit at a time when our skills should be utilized in order to create the safest situation for students.

The least effective way to ensure students’ social and emotional health is to create distress in their teachers by ignoring our valid concerns. We know what we are talking about.

Stop gaslighting us.

On the Reopening of BC Schools

As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week [edit: in September] if the Public Health Office expressed confidence in a return to in-school instruction after they had conducted random checks of a sample of schools in a range of socio-economic areas to see first-hand the facilities that public schools in British Columbia actually have.

Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure that meal preparation is hygienic and safe; all businesses frequented by the public know that their facilities have to be in safety compliance or their reputation will suffer and they will lose clients.  Public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety. 

It’s only recently that there has been progress toward seismic safety but ongoing problems with mice infestation and the lack of drinkable water in many schools seems to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.

For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money for failing and inadequate infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current  BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of  decades of neglect within a short time. 

That neglect was at best tolerable during the Before times. But then Covid-19 came along and shed blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within the public education system in B.C.


Like many people in B.C. I’ve been riveted to regular Covid-19 updates by Dr. Henry. I admire her calm demeanor and steadfast handling of an unprecedented crisis.  I have been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.

She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders. 

Dr. Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the Ministry of Education will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.

The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the Ministry of Education being anything but reasonable.  Whether it was when they demanded concessions to our collective agreement in recent bargaining or when they ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the Ministry’s default setting for quite a while.

For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. 

And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the Ministry of Education to expect that after decades of cuts to budgets that there will be enough money in each school district to ensure that all Dr. Henry’s protocols are followed.   

Covid-19’s presence has led to the opening of the government’s purse in ways unseen since the Great Depression with many programs available to support various sectors of society during this challenging time.

So where’s the money for schools? 

In fulfilling Dr. Henry’s orders, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a 4-second spurt of cold water? 


How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before times? 

In BC we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in BC schools.

Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water,  another school may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.

Teachers all across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school but in too many schools it will not be. 

When all schools have lead-free drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully-functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident in there being reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.

That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.

In the Before times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls. 

And that is not reasonable at all.