Long COVID is here to stay.
The long-term illness has claimed the lives of more than 3,500 Americans, including one school principal. It’s placed millions more in fragile medical situations they’ve never before experienced. Many more will likely join them this winter, as COVID cases appear poised to surge yet again.
Education Week has spent much of the year in dialogue with nine educators struggling with long COVID. Many have shared stories of the frustration and anxiety they feel about dealing with a potentially chronic illness that much of the public doesn’t understand or acknowledge.
Here’s a guide to treating colleagues, family members, and friends who have long COVID with respect and compassion.
Don’t: Assume based on appearances.
Many people with long COVID look fine on the outside. That doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. Brain fog can make it difficult to perform basic tasks like writing or washing dishes. The fatigue can be so extreme that getting out of bed is a Herculean task. And feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness that often accompany long COVID cases can manifest in all kinds of unseen ways.
Don’t: Question whether someone is just being lazy.
Some people with long COVID are trying to push through the pain and keep their jobs. But some find that they don’t have as much stamina as they used to or they need to take more frequent breaks. To an outside observer, that might seem like laziness. But to someone with long COVID, a little understanding goes a long way—especially because many long COVID patients even struggle to convince their own doctors of how serious their illness is.
Don’t: Conflate one person’s situation with another’s.
Everyone Education Week has interviewed who has long COVID has described vastly different experiences. Some people recover after a few months, while others have spent years dealing with persistent symptoms. Some cases are more severe than others. And almost everyone has a different combination of symptoms, ranging from heart defects and diminished lung capacity to gastrointestinal discomfort, heightened sensitivity to noise, and loss of taste and smell. All these complexities make long COVID difficult to research, diagnose, and treat. But the variation shouldn’t prevent individuals and districts from extending compassion.
Do: Develop flexibility around options for paid leave.
Many educators with long COVID have struggled without options for long-term paid absences and federal short-term disability insurance. In some states, laws around flexibility for educators make dealing with an unpredictable illness like long COVID quite difficulty and costly. Districts should be mindful of these constraints and develop flexible, transparent arrangements so that educators can keep their jobs without sacrificing their health in the process. This will undoubtedly prove difficult, of course, given the wide-ranging challenges districts are facing with hiring enough full-time and substitute teachers to fill gaps.
Do: Keep in mind federal laws on disability accommodations.
Long COVID is on the list of disabilities that are protected from discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. That means schools have to make reasonable accommodations for people with long COVID and to act on those accommodations swiftly.
Do: Allow people to protect themselves as they feel necessary.
In some places in the United States, mask-wearing has become socially verboten, despite widespread evidence that it reduces the spread of respiratory diseases including COVID. But long COVID provides another reason why allowing people to take precautions on their own terms is critical. Many people who have recovered from long COVID are extremely worried about catching it again and seeing their symptoms return or worsen. Public health protections like mandates and recommendations for masking and social distancing can also help employees with long COVID feel safer, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report on long COVID.