The state of education took a physical and mental toll on many students and educators this past year, only fueling concerns about the pandemic's potential impact on Arizona's ongoing teacher shortage.
Now, some districts are using their federal COVID relief funds to try and prevent teacher burnout.
For the past 15 months, ABC15 has spoken with educators about the challenges and stressors of teaching during a pandemic.
"It's the mental bandwidth, it's like so much brainpower," said Callie Krohn, who teaches in the Alhambra Elementary School District.
"Swamped with grading and planning and you feel stuck because you're worried," said Sara Wyffels, named Arizona's Teacher of the Year for 2021.
"It's just been a real test of our commitment to each other and our commitment to learning," said Marc Schumann, who teaches in the Creighton School District.
School communities across the state remain concerned that that added pressure could push much-needed teachers away from the profession.
"The stress just got to be too much, I've actually stepped away from the classroom," said Amanda Austermann, who taught in the Florence Unified District. "It was a really difficult decision, but I had to do what's best for myself and my family."
It is something Dr. Victor Diaz has been watching closely as director of human resources for the Phoenix Elementary School District.
"I have described it as playing the Super Bowl every day," said Diaz. "It was a year of lots of points of pride, it was also a year of exhaustion."
That is why the district says it is intentionally slowing operations while classrooms are still empty and using federal COVID relief funds to provide all staff members with a $3,000 stipend, totaling just more than $2.8 million.
They are also adding additional supports and specialists to keep class sizes down heading into next year.
"It's been really important as we've gone into the summer to make sure that we're taking care of the health and wellness of our staff," said Diaz.
ABC15 found several other districts also using federal funds to provide similar incentives for teachers and staff, including Fountain Hills Unified, the Kyrene School District, Littleton Elementary District, Mesa Public Schools, Osborn School District, Pendergast Elementary District and the Washington Elementary School district.
That money, going toward things like summer school, frontline worker and retention stipends, or even a two percent salary bump for the 2021-2022 school year.
"It doesn't fix everything, it doesn't all of a sudden make things less exhaustive or challenging, but I think it's a good faith signal of how much we appreciate what they do every day and that we're going to need them to continue to do every day," said Diaz.
The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association tracks data related to teacher recruitment and retention and tells ABC15 they're hearing from many districts that retention rates may be higher going into next year than in the past. Some of that could be related to these types of retention stipends, or the lingering uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
The organization is set to release its next report on the teacher shortage in September after the new school year begins.