'This Feeling of Impending Doom': A Teacher's View of Covid in a Madison School

With students getting sick and heading home for quarantine right after in-person instruction started in the Madison school district, the potential for a growing outbreak is hanging over a new school year.

By Zac Schultz

September 22, 2021 • South Central Region

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A view of the Madison Metropolitan School District administrative office building with a flag pole flying the USA and Wisconsin flags

As expected, teachers, students and staff at the Madison Metropolitan School District are contending with a disruptive and stressful beginning of in-person instruction in the new school year as COVID-19 quickly spreads. (Credit: Zac Schultz / PBS Wisconsin)

All throughout the summer of 2021, Madison school district officials told teachers it was very likely a COVID-19 outbreak would emerge when classes started in fall. But one teacher was surprised by the speed with which positive covid results came up and kids were sent home to quarantine.

The teacher has asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to talk candidly about what happened in their classroom.

This veteran teacher works in an elementary school in the Madison Metropolitan School District. In the spring, there were no outbreaks during the two months of school conducted in person, so initially the teacher was hopeful Madison’s mask mandate for kids and staff would be enough. However, summer wore on and the spread of the Delta variant increased.

“I had this feeling of impending doom,” said the teacher. “You can’t pinpoint when it will happen, but you just know based off the numbers.”

It happened on the second full day of school, the Tuesday after Labor Day.

“Tuesday morning, I marked certain students absent. About 9:30, a nurse came in and asked where does so-and-so sit?” recalled the teacher.

The nurse started asking questions to the whole class: “Where did that student sit on Friday? Who sat at their table? Who was close to that kid during gym or lunch — kids raised their hands.”

The teacher remembered the day hour-by-hour.

“I had an idea, like oh boy,” they continued. “Around 11:30, another rep from school had a list of kids. They had five minutes to gather things and wait in isolation. That was unexpected for me, that kids had to go so quickly. It was abrupt, because those students were not told anything, students left behind were upset. Half the class got sent home. This is why masks are so important.”

The teacher said the safety protocols put in place by the district worked. None of the kids in quarantine contracted COVID-19. That’s because kids and staff wear masks, even outdoors. All kids eat facing the same direction and no talking is allowed during lunch, because that’s the highest risk when all the kids have their masks down, said the teacher.

A sign with an illustrated surgical mask reads "MASK REQUIRED."

A sign at the entrance to the Madison Metropolitan School District’s administrative offices indicates that masks are required to be worn indoors. (Credit: Zac Schultz / PBS Wisconsin)

The district had a plan in place for what quarantine would look like, but it didn’t seem to the teacher that it was prepared for it to happen on day two. The teacher said there were a lot of questions among their colleagues: “Who is contacting families, who is letting them know? What do I have to do?”

The teacher sent an email to the parents of the quarantined kids, telling them what lessons they could do, but there would be no Zoom lessons and much of what they missed cannot be replaced.

“I’m so devastated this many kids are gone, lessons that are fundamental to start of the year, games where we build community,” they said

The teacher did not need to quarantine because they are vaccinated and wore a mask. However, they have colleagues in other school districts without the same support.

“It’s terrifying,” said the teacher. “Some of my friends teach outside of Dane County. They’re scared for kids. They’re asking families to consider wearing masks, but when it’s not mandated there is higher risk.”

The teacher understands this cycle could happen all over again.

“This is going to be a revolving door. I’m hoping I’m wrong. But I have to prepare for the worst. We could go virtual at the drop of the hat,” they warned.

In the second-day-of-school case, the student with COVID-19 was diagnosed elsewhere and their parents contacted the school. But if a child comes to school, it will fall on the teacher to diagnose covid symptoms, they said, adding any symptoms that match covid could result in a quarantine order.

In fact, one kindergartner ate too fast on the first day of school and vomited. Vomiting is a symptom of covid. So that student was sent home to quarantine.

“The district is so overwhelmed they don’t have time to investigate each case. These are the parameters, if they fit that, quarantine,” the teacher said.

However, a zero tolerance policy could backfire, warned the teacher.

“Parents are going to lie. It’s too important to go to work. Kids might figure it out too and not be honest if they were close to that kid for longer than 15 minutes,” they said,

For now, this teacher can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

“I’m in a Catch-22. I can only do so much. I wish we could do more for our kids who have to quarantine,” they said. “It feels like a punishment, and I have to remind them they’ve done nothing wrong.”

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