Two years into the pandemic, many Americans are eager to leave COVID behind. But that won’t be so easy for as many as 1 in 5 educators who, according to a recent EdWeek survey, have experienced the emerging, mysterious illness known as long COVID.
Epidemiologists estimate that 20 to 30 percent, or even as much as 50 percent, of people infected with COVID-19 end up developing long COVID, which encompasses a wide variety of disorders people experience weeks, months, or even years after their initial brush with the disease.
Some people lose their taste and smell; others have developed crushing fatigue, memory lapses, heart and lung conditions, vision loss, anxiety and depression, and other ailments that impede nearly every aspect of their daily life.
These maladies have hardly spared K-12 education. New data from the EdWeek Research Center show that 19 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders surveyed say they have contracted long COVID.
In a workforce that tops 6 million people, that percentage suggests hundreds of thousands of people who serve the nation’s K-12 students have suffered long-lasting symptoms after contracting COVID.
Ruthanne Grajeda, a paraprofessional who helps teachers at a school for behaviorally challenged students in Wyoming, is one of them. She spent three weeks in the ICU, another nine days in a regular hospital room, and three weeks in a rehab center after contracting COVID last September.
Nearly eight months later, she’s still having trouble breathing at times, and has to carry an oxygen tank with her when she leaves the house. She’s been working part-time at her school ever since.
Though her symptoms are resolving far more slowly than she likes, she’s still optimistic about returning to school full-time in the fall. “I am not one that can stay home,” Grajeda said. “I’ve had some quality time with my grandson that lives here, and I love that. But my brain needs more stimulation.”
Working full-time has been impossible for Kathleen Law, an elementary school teacher in Oregon, since she contracted COVID in August. She’s had foggy thinking ever since, and she gets bone-tired easily.
“On Mondays I’m ready to go, I’m feeling great, and then by Wednesday I’m definitely depleted,” said Law, who is 42 years old and was fully vaccinated prior to contracting COVID.
Law’s doctors are optimistic she’ll eventually recover. Not everyone with long COVID sees their symptoms resolve, though.
Chimére Smith, 39, was a middle school teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools—until March 2020, when she contracted a severe case of COVID that has hardly abated since. She experienced everything from sharp spinal pain and migraines to overwhelming exhaustion, memory lapses, gastrointestinal issues, hallucinations, and suicidal ideation.
For months, doctor after doctor told Smith that her symptoms were nothing to worry about. Smith, who is Black, says she encountered racist skepticism at every turn.
But the symptoms never went away, and she’s since been diagnosed with long COVID and prescribed a litany of medications and treatments.
“I always kind of make the joke now that my two weeks of being sick and then recovering have never come,” said Smith, who testified last April before a congressional committee about her struggles with long COVID and the racism she’s encountered as she pursued treatment.
She exhausted all of her sick leave, negotiated extra days off with the help of her teachers union, and eventually secured short-term disability that covers the period from September 2020 to September 2022. After that, the future of her job—and health insurance to pay for her medications—is uncertain.
“I’m asked by coworkers and students, ‘When are you coming back?’ It’s starting to frustrate me now,” Smith said. “I cannot say when. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to return.”
A panoply of illnesses with devastating consequences
Education Week interviewed ten school workers, including one superintendent, who had or currently have long COVID. No two experiences were alike.
Some had a mild bout with COVID only to later experience debilitating symptoms like organ damage that could cause a heart attack. Others have suffered immensely, with persistent muscle aches and overwhelming fatigue, ever since testing positive. Some have continued working while others have cut back hours or contemplated leaving the profession altogether.
Many said they felt isolated, lonely, anxious, and depressed while they suffered with conditions many Americans, and even some doctors, still don’t understand or believe.
“It’s not a sickness that you see on the outside. I could walk around without my oxygen tank, and people would never know I still struggle to breathe, or my heart rate still goes up really high if I do something too fast,” said Grajeda, fighting back tears. “They think you should be ready and back, and it’s not like that.”
More instances of long COVID in schools are virtually guaranteed as the virus continues to spread and public mitigation measures like masking and vaccination requirements disappear. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has long COVID himself, introduced a bill last month that would, among other things, require federal agencies to help schools understand the impact of long COVID on employment and disability accommodations.
Long COVID is one of many factors contributing to particularly painful staffing shortages plaguing school districts nationwide this year. It poses challenges for administrators over how to handle paid leave and special accommodations for employees and students who suddenly need them. And it raises broader questions about whether shifting attention from the ongoing spread of COVID-19 will serve schools, and society, in the long run.
“School communities need to have really open conversations about the fact that this is a potential consequence,” said Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an assistant professor at the City University of New York’s School of Medicine.
The first challenge for long COVID sufferers: recognizing you’re one of them
The term “long COVID” developed organically as people started experiencing it in the hazy early months of the pandemic, when public knowledge of the disease was still nascent. It’s come to represent a wide spectrum of disorders that attack vital organs for at least three months after an initial COVID-19 infection.
It’s not a marginal condition. Slightly more than half of teachers, principals, and district leaders who answered an EdWeek Research Center survey this month say they know at least one co-worker who’s had it. And close to one-quarter of respondents said someone in their household has experienced the condition.
Long COVID, like COVID-19 itself, is less common in children than adults, but some children do develop it. Slightly more than 4 in 10 survey respondents said at least one of their students has had long COVID.
Sarah Bilotti, superintendent of the North Warren schools in New Jersey, said numerous students and several staff members in her district have disclosed that they have long COVID—or they’ve confessed that they have concerning symptoms that won’t go away, without knowing why.
“I think people are so unaccustomed to that diagnosis and this language that people aren’t sure what’s going on,” she said.
Some people who fear being fired or ostracized likely are suffering with long COVID in silence. Megan Carmilani, who founded the nonprofit Long COVID Families to help connect patients to resources and advocate for more robust research, said she knows several educators who have kept their long COVID diagnosis a secret.
“Teachers have colleagues who are struggling with long COVID and they have no idea,” Carmilani said.
Some educators have found it rewarding to share their condition. Angela Jackson, director of operations for the Piedmont Classical High School in Browns Summit, N.C., told her direct co-workers that she’s been suffering from brain fog and sometimes can’t function past 2 p.m. since contracting COVID a year ago.
“I was glad that I did tell the people that I work with directly, in case they saw me looking a little lost,” Jackson said. “It’s turned into an ongoing joke at this point.”
The federal government last summer officially designated long COVID as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means school employees are entitled to accommodations from their employer if they can offer documentation of their condition.
It's not a sickness that you see on the outside. I could walk around without my oxygen tank, and people would never know I still struggle to breathe.
John Comegno, a lawyer who serves as general counsel to schools on disability accommodations and other issues, said districts should respond to a long COVID diagnosis by following the standard process for responding to an employee or student’s request for accommodation.
He’s seen a few instances where districts try to argue with their employees about whether or not long COVID exists. “Leave that to the medical professionals,” he said.
Another threat to maintaining staffing and retention
A data analysis by the Brookings Institute in January estimated that 1.6 million people nationwide were out of work because of long COVID. For the vast number of school districts straining to adequately staff buildings during the pandemic, long COVID adds yet another wrinkle.
David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin district in Minnesota, said he personally knows of five teachers in his district who have long COVID. With a district of 3,100 teachers and nearly three dozen school buildings, he suspects the number is actually far larger.
His district has offered intermittent leave to allow teachers suffering from long COVID who need time off to take it when they need it. And some teachers have transitioned to serving as in-house substitutes if they can only commit to coming in on certain days.
“Long COVID is just one more challenge on a list of challenges trying to keep the doors open,” Law said.
Those challenges could worsen in the years ahead. Thanks to long COVID, the profession stands to lose teachers like Joelle Melling, 26. Since 2019, she’s taught elementary school art in Independence, Mo. She had hoped to teach for five to 10 years before pursuing a career in art therapy.
But that was before she got COVID in September 2020. Three months later, she could hardly stand for 15 minutes to greet students as they walked in, and she had to use a walker to get around. Much of her strength has returned, but she’s since developed some intermittent stomach and gall bladder issues, and an acute sensitivity to noise that makes sitting in a classroom of chattering students nearly impossible.
This school year will be her last in the classroom.
“I’m just pushed over the limit of my threshold of tolerance every day,” Melling said. “I love my students but I just can’t do it anymore.”
Are you an educator with a long COVID story to share? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as 1 in 5 Educators Say They’ve Experienced Long COVID