Betsy Peterson spent the first half of her career in IT and advertising, then stayed at home raising kids for 11 years. In 2005, she went back to work, and started a new caerer: teaching technology classes at public K-12 schools in Massachusetts. She loved her job, her students, and her colleagues.
But at the start of this year, her personal life hit a rough patch. Her dad died in March after contracting a virus at his nursing home. Not long after, she contracted COVID. Her case was mild at first, but an array of troubling symptoms followed.
She ended up retiring in April at age 59, years before she had hoped to. This is her story, in her own words. (The following interview, conducted on Nov. 2, has been condensed for length and clarity. Education Week did not name the district so Peterson could speak freely about her experience.)
The brain fog is the debilitating part. I contacted my colleagues, ‘Could I borrow some of your lessons and just teach them until I get my brain back?’ But I couldn’t make any sense of them.
Executive function is the cornerstone of what teachers have to have. You’re trying to deliver a lesson and keep kids in line and be alert for active shooters in the hallway.
I would try to call the doctor to get some information. If I got an answering machine, I would write a note, the note would go missing in my house for three weeks. Everything was written on sticky notes, everything was [set to] alarms so at least I would remember to take my pills. I thought maybe this is the start of dementia.
I also have shortness of breath, fatigue upon exertion, dizziness when I stand up, GI symptoms. I didn’t have any of these long COVID symptoms while I was sick with COVID. Because I had gone out for emotional distress with all that was going on with my dad, everyone involved was presuming the cognitive issues I was having were from the stress.
I worked in a low-income district with kind of at-risk kids. It was a great district to work in, but they were really irritated by me being out. They had to use their building sub to cover my spot. It’s COVID, it’s a struggle for them. Nobody wants to sub anymore.
My school demanded I come back at week 11, after I had used up my FMLA [family and medical leave.] I was not able to. I asked if I could use my personal days, or my bereavement days. They said no.
I said, ‘You told me I was entitled to 12 weeks.’ They said, ‘We applied some time to sick days taken back in December.’ Why would you do that? They said, ‘Really, you’ve had enough time at this point. You need to be back in on April 27th.’
‘My brain is broken’
I resigned in April. I think that their tiredness around the situation was probably more wrapped up in their tiredness from COVID. I don’t think it was about me.
At the time I was so muddled, I didn’t even think to call the union rep and say, what should I do? I’m not the kind of person that wants to throw someone under the bus. I don’t think it’s legal that they didn’t let me take my bereavement days or my personal days.
The schools don’t pay into the state’s paid family leave, which would give you 26 weeks of paid time.
Most people get better at six months, I’m already past six months. A year is another point, a year and a half is another point. I’m doing cognitive and physical therapy, and seeing a mental health counselor because it’s frustrating and it’s been emotionally kind of a roller coaster.
I haven’t had income since January. I’m single, self-supporting. My costs for COBRA [health insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act] were almost $1,200 a month. I filed for retirement in June and I hopefully will get my first check on Nov. 30. I will have been 11 full months without income, which is just crazy.
Because it’s my second career, I never got up to the percentage that other people would for my pension. But by leaving five years early, I’m only at about half of that. My pension will give me about $2,000 a month—not enough to cover my taxes and utilities and things. I’m going to have to get a job to supplement. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to work.
My brain is broken. While I’m unloading the dryer I will walk away and start doing something else. I noticed today while I was doing the dishes, I pulled a dish out of the sink to wash it and then I set it down to pick up a different one and wash it. It takes me about seven [tries] to get out of the house. I forget my keys, I forget my wallet, my phone, my purse. I’m just a mess.
In Massachusetts, we don’t pay into Social Security, so I don’t qualify for federal disability even though long COVID is adisability under ADA [the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.]
I have enough quarters to take Social Security and qualify for disability, but you have to have worked in the private sector in the last 10 years. I don’t qualify there. And we don’t qualify for Social Security, anyway. It’s just frustrating.
I was a super high-functioning teacher. Everybody has really liked my work. For me to have to stop because there wasn’t a way for me to pause long enough to get better is really frustrating.
In Massachusetts, if you’ve retired and you want to reinstate yourself, you have to commit to working five more years. They won’t adjust your retirement unless you hit that five-year mark. Maybe I could work until 66 and then petition to have them reinstate me.
I contacted the retirement board and told them, ‘I can tell you what you would have taken out of my pay. Can I give you that $60,000 and then retire at the level I would have been at?’ There’s a bill in the works that would allow people to do that, if their district was willing to pay the majority of it.
Getting tangled in red tape
I applied for disability. I was denied. I should probably get legal counsel if I’m going to think about appealing. I talked to someone at the state, and they said to contact my local union. I did contact them a couple weeks ago. They said they don’t actually have experience with this or don’t know anyone else in the district who’s had long COVID. I feel like they will be as supportive as they can, but they’re also teachers trying to teach children who have been affected by learning losses and COVID and all of that. Their plates are full.
I hadn’t anticipated being retired this fall. I took some time and went out west in September, which kind of cushioned a little bit the idea that I wasn’t back to school. I kept having dreams about the kids. They would ask, ‘Where are you, Mrs. Peterson?’
I felt very alone and unsupported in the winter and spring. Whether my appeal has any merit with the disability people, or whether there’s any money coming from anywhere, that’s kind of a secondary thing. I just want to get better.
Are you an educator with a long COVID story to share? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.