The worry creeps in as Stacia Zoghbi approaches the front door of her high school. Like students across Massachusetts — still faced with record-setting COVID-19 caseloads, nearly two years into the pandemic — the 17-year-old begins each day with a high-stakes calculation: How to get to her first class on time, alongside 1,500 other students, while limiting her risk of exposure to the virus?
If she enters Worcester Technical High School too early, she will have to wait in the cafeteria with hundreds of other students, some unmasked as they eat breakfast, until the 7:10 a.m. bell that releases the crowd into the hallways. But if she waits too long to avoid the rush, she risks being tardy to class, even if she sprints upstairs to her fourth-floor classroom.
It is the first of dozens of decisions she must make as she navigates a pandemic-era school day during the Omicron surge, a routine she agreed to document this month for the Globe to help shed light on the experience of thousands of Massachusetts students. Since December, more than 100,000 positive cases of the virus have been reported among the state’s 911,000 students.
Zoghbi, a senior specializing in finance and marketing, is by now a weary veteran of these trials. Her one fully “normal” high school year happened when she was a freshman — a distant memory. Since then, she has overcome nearly continuous disruption in every aspect of her education.
The stress is a constant, and it is shared by almost everyone she knows.
“We’re trying to do the best we can,” says Zoghbi, who serves as a student representative on the Worcester School Committee, “but there’s only so much we can do, as students.”
She spoke for this story as an individual, not a representative of the committee.
On Jan. 12, with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees at 7 a.m., she paused outside her school, where about 20 students waited in the cold rather than risk the packed cafeteria. “It’s too crowded in there,” she heard one say.
Once inside, on her way upstairs to class, Zoghbi spotted a friend, just back from an absence, who recounted an unsettling stay in a crowded hospital. She noticed he was wearing a cloth mask, the kind experts now say is inadequate.
“Hey,” Zoghbi asked as they walked together, “want one of mine?” She handed over an extra KN95 mask, which her friend put on at once.
Her school has plenty of surgical masks available, she says, but many students seem unaware — maybe because adult administrators, here as elsewhere, favor e-mail messages instead of more student-friendly social media when communicating such information.
Upstairs in her Spanish class, 11 of 20 students were missing. A few latecomers straggled in, but six students never showed. With absentee rates as high as 30 percent in some schools this month, teachers say they have struggled to decide how much curriculum to cover in class, since the state has blocked most remote learning options.
Zoghbi credits her teachers and administrators for their tireless efforts to keep the school functioning safely; she knows their options are limited. But she would like to see more accommodations — such as fewer penalties for being late to class at a time when many students are wary of crowded hallways.
“We only have four minutes between classes, and people are shoulder to shoulder,” she said. “I have made the decision at times to be late, just to wait and avoid that crush of people.”
She settled into her seat in Spanish and checked her e-mail on her phone before the class began. There was a new message from school, and Zoghbi felt a jolt as she began to read it.
For the first time since the pandemic began, she had been identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive.
Her mind began to race, blocking out her teacher’s words. The e-mail said she should report to school early the next morning to be tested. But it didn’t say what she should do today to prevent unnecessary spread within her school.
“Should I get up and leave?” Zoghbi worried. “Do I have to leave?”
She texted her friends and learned that some had received the same e-mail. She texted her parents, who reassured her that she would be fine, because she’s vaccinated, with a booster, and did not have any symptoms. She checked in later with her principal, who confirmed it was OK to stay in school.
Still, the gaps in the system nagged at her. “Why are we waiting a day to test?” she wondered. “What if I’m spreading it to others?” Many of her peers live with elderly family members, she knows, and just 49 percent of Worcester teenagers in her age group are fully vaccinated.
It feels wrong, she thinks, not to do everything to keep others healthy.
She stays in school that day and heads to her second class, Trade-Related Theory, a requirement for her finance and marketing program. Some of these classmates have been close COVID contacts several times. They barely flinch at the e-mails anymore.
“It’s sad that this is our new normal,” Zoghbi says.
Later, passing the auditorium on the way to her next class, she saw students filing in for a study hall, a familiar sight statewide this month with rampant teacher absences and few substitutes.
In English, she sat next to a friend who had just returned to school after missing nine days with COVID-19. He began to share the daunting tally of his makeup work: six assignments for English, 11 for history, two for precalculus, though he did what he could at home.
The academic quarter would end in a week and a half; her friend faced a time crunch if he wanted to keep his grades up.
Their school is full of high achievers, and that produces its own perils. Zoghbi said she knows a few students who have come to school with COVID-19 symptoms — or after a positive test — because they dread falling behind. “There’s no reason students shouldn’t be able to access remote live instruction while they’re home sick,” she says.
At lunch, she eats quickly at a crowded table, keenly aware that there are several hundred other unmasked people all around her.
She wonders if her generation has been changed forever.
“Will we always avoid crowds?” she asks. “Will we be scared to go to concerts?”
After lunch comes history, then AP statistics. Statistics is her favorite class, she says, “the closest thing to what education used to be.”
While many teachers have shifted in-class lessons onto laptops since their use became routine during the pandemic, this instructor has gone back to basics. The difference, Zoghbi says, is night and day.
“Nothing beats paper and a pen and listening to your teacher,” she says. “He does the problems on the board and everyone’s engaged. … We shouldn’t have to stare at screens for eight hours a day.”
There are other bright spots. Zoghbi is grateful her school and district leaders value student input — she is working with her principal, and the school committee, to address student concerns. She also feels lucky to be at one of Worcester’s newer school buildings, with modern ventilation, while students elsewhere in the state shiver in the icy drafts from open windows.
Yet some problems seem inescapable. When she stepped out of statistics class to visit the restroom, the nearest one was locked. Pandemic staff shortages have made this chronic problem worse: Schools want bathrooms monitored by adults, so when staff is limited, few bathrooms are open.
That means more missed class time as students search the building, Zoghbi says, and fewer opportunities to wash their hands.
When the final bell set students free at 1:43 p.m., Zoghbi braced for another crowded hallway. She escaped into the winter air, pulled down her mask, and breathed deeply.
Back in school early the next morning, she tested negative for COVID-19. A few hours later, the state released its weekly count of new student cases: 41,063, a new record.
The number was stunning. But it didn’t stun Zoghbi.
“I hear so many parents and community members talk about what it’s like to be in school right now,” she said. “But they aren’t the ones living and breathing it.”