As the third holiday season marked by the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, some educators with long COVID are feeling optimistic about getting better, while others are still struggling after months or even years.
Roughly 1 in 13 American adults has long-COVID symptoms that persisted for more than three months, according to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Close to 1 in 5 school district leaders, principals, and teachers who answered an EdWeek Research Center survey this summer said they’ve had long COVID, and more than half said they know at least one co-worker with long COVID.
Education Week in April published a profile of nine educators dealing with long COVID. For this article, Education Week contacted all of those educators again, and all responded.
Five said their symptoms have dramatically improved since this spring, while the other four said they haven’t seen much improvement or are still suffering. Two have left full-time teaching for new jobs.
Some said their symptoms remain debilitating. And even as the federal government has assigned a national Long COVID coordinator, research efforts are ramping up, and preliminary evidence is emerging that widely available COVID vaccines reduce the risk of long COVID, the psychic toll of the virus’ unknown effects looms large.
“It’s really forcing us to get more in tune with, ‘What is the new baseline for me? Is this gonna be my forever?’” said Amanda McGhee, an educator who has had long COVID since December 2020.
The collection of chronic illnesses known as long COVID include breathing troubles, loss of taste and smell, excessive fatigue, brain fog, and heart damage. All of these symptoms last for a minimum of three months, but many people have reported little relief after two years. No two cases look alike, and doctors are often reluctant to provide a definitive diagnosis.
Kaide Dodson, the principal of the Roosevelt Learning Center in Rock Springs, Wyo.—which serves students with behavioral challenges—said she’s been grateful for the school community of long-COVID sufferers that has formed in her area, and for her husband’s emotional support.
“I can’t imagine if I didn’t have that,” Dodson said. “People within their own home, if they don’t have a support network, that would make it 100 times harder.”
As COVID symptoms ease, a new job opportunity arises
Some educators with long COVID are feeling much better, offering hope to those who fear the disease’s effects are irreversible.
Joelle Melling, who had taught elementary art in Independence, Mo., has experienced slightly more severe asthma than before she had long COVID. But her more-extreme long-COVID symptoms, like extreme sensitivity to noise and inability to stand for a long period of time, have dissipated.
This June, she took a job at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Mo., helping classroom teachers develop curriculum materials tied to toy collections. She’s also working part-time towards a master’s degree in counseling, and preparing for a career pivot to art therapy for families.
“I am so thankful to be alive and to be free to pursue my passion,” Melling said.
A more flexible job brought relief
Kathleen Law, an elementary school teacher from Oregon, also left the classroom after dealing with long COVID since August 2021.
During a leave of absence this summer, Law ended up getting an appealing job offer, from a company that trains teachers on the science of reading. She had done freelance work for the company since 2016, and a job with them that she could do from her home suited her well.
“I feel like I have a better work-life balance, working remote. I’m more involved with my kiddos. It’s been wonderful,” Law said.
She does regret losing out on the retirement money she could have gotten by finishing her career in teaching.
Her long-COVID symptoms aren’t entirely gone, either. She still has to monitor her heart rate and manage her energy throughout the day to avoid burning out.
“If I were to go back full-time, I will probably fall back into where I was,” Law said. “Or at least, that’s my fear.”
A new, undesirable normal
For others, long COVID is showing signs of improvement but remains an obstacle to feeling healthy and normal.
Larry Geist, the superintendent of the Centre school district in Lost Springs, Kan., has more stamina now than he did during the peak of long COVID, which he’s had since early 2021. But he still gets tired more quickly than he used to.
When his family attends sports games together, they fret over whether Geist will be able to walk to and from their seats.
“My son-in-law will go get the car so I don’t have to walk as far, which irritates me,” Geist said. “They’re doing it because they care.”
Back at work in Idaho
Ruthanne Grajeda, a paraprofessional in Wyoming, back on track in part thanks to several visits for weeks at a time to Idaho, where her mother lives. She was able to shed the oxygen tank she used to carry around everywhere after being hospitalized for COVID and experiencing symptoms months later.
She also got back to working full time, which she loves.
“That was really nice to be welcomed back by my work family,” she said.
She still worries about how devastating it would be to get COVID again and potentially land back in the hospital.
And she still periodically feels pain in her feet and hands that’s difficult to explain.
“My doctor’s like, ‘No, that’s not from that.’ I’m like, ‘Um, yeah it is,’” Grajeda said.
A heart shows signs of healing
Kaide Dodson thought earlier this year that she might need heart surgery because of complications that doctors said were caused by her experience with long COVID. More recently, her heart has shown signs of healing, and surgery likely won’t be necessary.
But she’s been more susceptible to other illnesses than ever before—on top of getting COVID this fall for the fifth time, she’s dealt with colds, the flu, and even shingles.
She’s kept her job through all these complications. But other parts of her life have suffered.
“My life is to make it through work. I don’t want to say I’m a shitty mom, but I definitely don’t cook as many meals as I used to,” Dodson said. “House chores, that’s my whole weekend.”
Respiratory viruses pose new threats
The surge in respiratory viruses has also made life harder for Alisha Walker, a teacher from Alabama. She just recently recovered from the flu, and worries about catching something else soon.
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, if she contracts COVID again, she’ll have to drain her regular sick leave, per district policy. Some districts, like Round Rock in Texas and Howard County in Maryland, still offer extra time off for employees who contract COVID, but many have backed away from those more generous policies.
“Don’t isolate the people who still have anxiety about it or have been through a lot with COVID,” Walker said. “They may need a little bit more time to come back around to normal living.”
Painful symptoms with no end in sight
Normalcy means something different to everyone. Some educators with long COVID worry they’ll never get their version of normal back.
Amanda McGhee, director of curriculum and instruction for the Warren County Career Center, which serves students at six homeschools in Ohio, earlier this month marked the two-year anniversary of the last day she could smell and taste.
She feels guilty now when friends bring over meals and she can only appreciate the texture of the food. “You just realize how much you miss the craft of a well-prepared meal and the things that come with that,” she said.
Working with relentless fatigue
Angela Jackson, director of operations for the Piedmont Classical High School in Browns Summit, N.C., recently got so fed up with the relentless fatigue that has been plaguing her for months that she made an appointment with her primary care doctor.
“I’ve mentioned it to her before and she really hasn’t made any kind of referral,” Jackson said. “This time, it’s like, ‘I need you to send me to somebody. I can’t keep doing this.’”
She works remotely once in a while, but her colleagues prefer her to work in person, an hour’s drive away from home. This summer, she was scheduled to make headway on her dissertation, but instead she just rested.
“I’m hard on myself because it’s kind of the nature of the job” to feel tired, she said.
People within their own home, if they don’t have a support network, that would make it 100 times harder.
Her family’s situation weighs on her, too. Her dad died of complications from COVID right around the time she started experiencing long COVID symptoms. At first, she couldn’t tell if her fatigue was from grief or the virus.
Now, her sister has long COVID as well, even worse than her.
Still, Angela Jackson goes to work nearly every day, toiling away at her school’s complex finances, including a bond issue that passed last year and requires constant monitoring.
“Early on in the pandemic, people were praising teachers and nurses and doctors. Now everybody’s sick of us and feels like we’re whining,” Jackson said. “We all gave more. It wasn’t enough.”
Slow progress for Connecticut educator
Stories like these are resonating nationwide.
Julia, an elementary interventionist, is one of several educators who contacted Education Week after the April story published. Julia requested that her last name not be printed in order to protect her anonymity.
There were some very scary days—months, even—where I was so sick, I couldn’t leave a couch and I couldn’t even leave my bed.
She, her husband, and her two kids all contracted COVID in December 2020. For three weeks, she couldn’t taste or smell; and she endured vertigo, headaches, sore muscles, shortness of breath, nausea, and a diminished appetite.
She tried to go back to work in January 2021 but collapsed on the job. Then she spent a few weeks teaching from her bedroom, in agony.
“I would turn off my video and cry in pain,” she said.
The shortness of breath and intense chest pain wouldn’t go away. After her district’s mid-February break, she gritted her teeth and took medical leave.
“There were some very scary days—months, even—where I was so sick, I couldn’t leave a couch and I couldn’t even leave my bed,” Julia said. “I wouldn’t shower for over a week. It was just too much.”
One month off for Julia turned into the rest of the school year. She returned to work in the fall of 2021.
Two years later, Julia still deals with constant chest pain, though her symptoms have improved, with the help of medicines, herbs, and supplements, and even home remedies like coconut water and the energy drink Tailwind.
“I don’t know if anything I’m doing is helping or if it’s just that it’s time,” she said.