A peek inside my COVID-19 life.

Every ten days or so, I bring home a reusable tote bag stuffed with microfiber cloths. These cloths have been sprayed with a disinfectant and then used to wipe down the mice and keyboards in the lab I share with Mr. Stueve.

We could just spray directly on the keyboards and mice—and we used to—but it leaves a sticky film that irritates the students, so we started cleaning this way, after every class that uses the computers, and haven’t heard many complaints since.

Though maybe they are keeping the complaints to themselves.

Our custodial staff is amazing, and they make sure that we never run out of the cleaners that we need (one for the tech and fabric chairs, a different one for the desks). We have a steady supply of gloves so that our hands don’t have to touch the cleaner. They fog our room every night. They are each performing Herculean sanitizing tasks, and I worry about the toll on their health.

But the smell of the cleaner—it does something to me.

When I put those cloths in my car, I can’t escape the smell, and that’s when I start to glimpse the toll teaching face-to-face in a pandemic has taken on me. I’ve heard that the sense of smell is tied most to memory, and the memories associated with this cleaner aren’t entirely pleasant.

I wash them—twice, to try and rid the stench—and then I use homemade vinegar and lavender oil dryer sheets to try and make a dent. When I fold them, I take a random cloth and see if anything has worked. The scent is more faint, but it’s still there.

On the bright side, it’s a good test for my own efforts to avoid getting COVID-19 (haven’t lost my sense of smell yet).

I’ve seen a lot in my social media feeds in recent weeks about mental health of students who’ve been remote learning now for nearly a year. Groups are clamoring for students to return to the classroom, citing mental health as a key reason.

The stories I’m currently missing, though: what about the mental health of students who returned to face-to-face instruction last August? What about the mental health of their teachers?

Mental health is a public health issue, pandemic notwithstanding. Sending kids and teachers back to school isn’t going to solve it. I’m sad that so many people seem to think it will.

Because I’m here to tell you—when I walk down the hallway to the lab after Mr. Stueve has cleaned it, and the scent of that cleaner permeates two layers of a cloth mask and a five-layer mask filter, my stomach churns. When I open the washing machine full of microfiber cloths and am overpowered with the cleaner odor, my heart starts to race. Those are physiological reactions that I usually associate with my fight or flight response.

I can’t wait to never smell this again, and I worry what will be triggered if I ever do.