Millions of Americans, including a significant percentage of K-12 educators and some students, are suffering from debilitating symptoms and syndromes months after their initial COVID-19 infection, according to a growing body of research and a new EdWeek Research Center survey. But too often, their stories have escaped attention.
Health experts are increasingly sounding the alarm about the wide-ranging effects of long COVID among a significant percentage of the American population. Some estimates suggest 23 million people in the United States—including children, young adults, and fully vaccinated people—have long COVID, while others project even higher numbers.
“This is a silent epidemic of its own right that is going to emerge, as soon as we get a handle on controlling the number of people who die,” said Priya Duggal, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University who is conducting a nationwide survey for the general public to better understand how long COVID works.
Education Week interviewed educators who have experienced long COVID to understand how this condition is affecting K-12 schools and the people within them. Their stories varied significantly, but a few common threads emerged:
- Educators with long COVID feel isolated from family, friends, and colleagues as they struggle to recover from an illness many Americans either don’t believe exists or are eager to forget.
- Symptoms of long COVID vary greatly from one person to the next. Some people lose their taste and smell, but have no other symptoms. Others retain those senses, but experience organ damage or extreme fatigue. Some long COVID cases appear to diminish over time, while others show no signs of letting up.
- Having a disease that even scientists still don’t fully understand can be scary. It can also be costly, with doctors’ visits and medical treatments piling up. Securing long-term leave from work can be a challenge, and the prospect of not being able to work because of long COVID could mean losing health insurance or a vital income.
- Long COVID sufferers are eager to share their experiences and help educate the wider population about how to understand whether they might have the disease and about the importance of acknowledging the risks of letting COVID-19 spread. People with long COVID “might look like they’re all together and fine, but they’re not,” Amanda McGhee, director of curriculum and instruction for the Warren County Career Center, which serves students at six homeschools in Ohio. She and her husband both have had it since late 2020.
Here are a few anecdotes from people who are still grappling with long COVID.
Hitting a wall in the middle of the workday
Angela Jackson serves as director of operations for the Piedmont Classical High School in Browns Summit, N.C. For her, COVID started in January 2021 as a “really bad flu”; her father died from COVID around the same time.
She found herself struggling to think clearly, getting tired easily, and losing her balance. At first, it seemed like the malaise of grief. But eventually she realized it was something else: long COVID.
She’s been getting sick with colds and bronchitis and visiting the doctor far more than usual. The symptoms started to taper last fall, but worsened again when she caught COVID a second time this winter.
She’s worked at home as frequently as she can, but “there was a lot of times I’ve just dragged myself in” to complete tasks that no one else at her school can do, she said. She took a week and a half off to complete her dissertation because she couldn’t muster the energy to work on it after work or all through the weekend.
She sleeps all weekend and can’t imagine how she would function if she were on her feet teaching kids all day.
“Everything takes forever,” she said. “Sometimes my brain would shut off at 2:00" in the afternoon.
In her human resources role at her school, she hasn’t counted days off for anyone who’s reported being out because of COVID. “It’s just out of everybody’s control,” she said.
Living in fear of getting too excited or exhausted
Kaide Dodson, 40, has tested positive for COVID four separate times since summer 2020, when she was a school principal in Montana.
Her heart rate sometimes drops to dangerously low levels, and doctors believe it may be permanently damaged and might require surgery. She can’t consume caffeine or alcohol, and she frequently has to rest for multiple days if she exerts herself too much.
She spends her weekends and holidays “going round and round to doctors’ appointments.” She’s been advised to avoid heavy workouts because they could cause a heart attack.
“I wouldn’t dare go out with friends and then expect that I’d be OK the rest of the weekend,” she said.
She moved to southwestern Wyoming during the pandemic for a slightly less demanding job as principal of the Roosevelt Learning Center, which serves students with individualized education plans (IEPs) and behavioral challenges. She had always pictured staying an educator forever. Now, “I’m wondering at some point if I’m going to have to find another career.”
Wondering whether it’s age or something more
Larry Geist, superintendent of the Centre district in Lost Springs, Kan., spent five days in the ICU with pneumonia and exhaustion from COVID in January 2021. Then he worked from home for a month. His lung capacity remains diminished, and doctors are monitoring him regularly to see if he develops a chronic lung disease.
His long COVID symptoms don’t disrupt his day-to-day life, but he still notices them. He parks as close to the district building as he can to shorten the walk to his office.
“I carried a box of stuff into school the other day and I was winded by the time I got in there,” Geist said.
It’s been hard at times for Geist to figure out whether his symptoms are because of long COVID or just the typical effects of aging. Either way, “I think they’re thinking I’m pretty well stuck with it,” he said.
Feeling nostalgic for crucial senses
Amanda McGhee in Warren County contracted COVID-19 in December 2020. Sixteen months later, she still can’t taste or smell. Food is no longer enjoyable.
“It’s the strangest thing. I feel like I’m hypersensitive to textures now,” she said. “I can certainly tell the thickness or the grittiness of something that has too much of whatever spice in it.”
Once, she was in the car with her husband and son when she thought she could smell something. But she couldn’t make it out beyond an inkling.
“They were like, ‘It’s a skunk!’ But it wasn’t that smell I associated with a skunk,” she said.
Still, her current condition is a huge improvement over the first six months after infection. She and her husband, a teacher, both had persistent brain fog and constantly felt tired.
“I feel like it took us until after my birthday in the beginning of March  to be able to stay up until 6 p.m. once we came home from work,” she said.
Are you an educator with a long COVID story to share? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.