This spring, after a three-month fight with COVID-19, Chad Russell returned to school, pulling an oxygen tank behind him. Russell, the principal of Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound, Texas, recounts his journey, which also included his wife and two of his four children falling ill with the virus. His interview with EdWeek has been edited for length and clarity.
I woke up on December 1st and just felt a little off, a little more lethargic than I should have been feeling. I typically have allergies in the fall, a sniffly nose or a little scratchy throat. But that morning, I felt it was a little bit stronger symptoms than I’ve been accustomed to.
I’d gotten dressed for school and come downstairs and was eating a little something, and I told my wife, nope, I probably ought to just call in and go get tested. Later that morning, I got my test results back and sure enough, I was positive. I didn’t feel super sick for several days, but it got progressively worse from there.
At that time, we had a fair number of positive cases, students and staff, in our school. The numbers were going up, and they continued to go up through February. In our setting, students had the choice to go virtual or stay in person. We had about 60 percent of our students on campus and 40 percent virtual.
I could’ve gotten it a million ways. We had limited numbers [of students on campus] here, so everybody was fairly spread out. We did as much as we could to limit the traffic and limit those occurrences. Ninety percent of our meetings were virtual. But there were instances where we did have a quick meeting in my office, and I was still visiting classrooms. Our students and our staff did a great job with masks. But we did have to give reminders to students to cover your nose.
I went into the hospital here around December 18th or 19th. I just felt worse and worse. I couldn’t even get up and down the stairs at my house without being really, really short of breath. It was just a really hard time. And you know, I was typical, “I can whip this.” I kept saying, “I’ll just get better. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
And I wasn’t. I finally told my wife, I probably need to go to the emergency room. They got me in and started checking my blood [oxygen] and it wasn’t good. It was in the fifties. They hooked me up to a face mask. I spent 12 days on a ventilator. But I don’t remember much after I got in. I remember about 30 minutes of the next day, talking to my wife on the phone. After that, I don’t remember anything until about January 5th.
I’d been transferred to [a hospital in] Oklahoma City by [Christmas]. I wasn’t really cognizant of anything, but my family had a tough, tough Christmas holiday. All four of our children were there. We’re looking forward to this Christmas, where we can hopefully celebrate the season way better than we did this past year. I was released from Oklahoma about January 15th, and an ambulance took me to a rehab hospital [in Texas]. I didn’t get home until around February 3rd.
While I was in the ICU, there was a [community] virtual prayer vigil, and another one in person in the parking lot of a church. There were blue ribbons, our school color, all over the campus, and all over town, and on people’s social media pages. The community was fantastic, rallying around me and my family. My wife and kids were able to go to the prayer vigil. Students and teachers and community members were able to be present, and really love on them, and extend their warmth to them. I’m so really appreciative of all that.
I didn’t know about any of it. When I woke up, my wife was able to come and visit me in the hospital in Oklahoma, and she started showing me the posts on social media. It was very overwhelming. Emotions were hard to control at that time. I’m not typically a super emotional person. But at that time, I was really emotional. I had to do it in doses. I could talk to her about it for five or 10 minutes, then I needed to do something else.
My wife and my stepdaughter got [COVID-19] shortly after I got it. They probably contracted it from me. They had a more minor case of it. A few symptoms and they were quarantined. But they were able to recover fairly quickly. Then my daughter just got it about three weeks ago.
The first week and a half I was home, I just did nothing. Then I did a lot of work from home. Phone calls, WebEx, emails. It was a total of about three weeks before I came back and was doing half days here, and then shortly thereafter, I was doing full days. By after spring break, the end of March, I was pretty much back full time.
When I came back, my secretary and some of the [assistant principals] organized a greeting for me. They had a drum line out there, because they know I like the drum line, and some [student council] kids were out there, and a bunch of the teachers were out there waving pompons and just calling for me. It was really cool. My wife drove me up, and I got out of the car, and I was able to wave at everybody a little bit. It was very emotional.
In my office, I had an oxygen machine that set right here behind me, plugged into the wall, and I would sit here at my desk with my nose cannula and work. And then I had a portable one on wheels that I would push or pull behind me as I would walk the halls. I still get winded from time to time walking stairs. I try to go for about a two, two-and-a-half-mile walk. If I’m going up an incline, my heart rate goes up a little higher than it probably should, and I get a little shortness of breath, and I check pulse [oxygen] on my finger, and it’s dropping below 90, so I’ll slow down a little bit, and it comes right back up in about 30 to 60 seconds.
I still use [oxygen] in [physical] therapy once a week. And my wife, for peace of mind, she likes me to sleep with it. So I have a machine beside our bed. It took a while for me to get my mental faculties back to sharpness and critical thinking. Part of my therapy was speech therapy, and things to sharpen my brain and get it going again.
When I woke up [in the hospital], it was pretty quickly evident that I had survived a fairly close-to-death experience. You start thinking about people that didn’t make it. And you start to ask yourself, why me? Why did I survive? And if you believe in a higher power, and somebody has a plan, possibly you think that maybe I was given a chance to come back and do something that I hadn’t quite finished yet.
Being an educator, my quickest thing to think about was that there’s some kids out there that I haven’t been able to reach yet, that I need to reach.
So that was kind of my motivating factor, and it’s always been my motivating factor: Where’s that next kid at that I can help? That’s why I’ve done this for 27 years. At some point, I think that my brain went to that part, that I need to get back so I can continue. I had the opportunity to keep fighting the good fight. That’s why I get up every day and look myself in the mirror and get ready and say, get ready to go fight the good fight. God was willing to give me a few more years to do that.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as A Principal’s Battle With COVID-19