More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, one in 20 K-12 educators believe they have long COVID. Another 14 percent think or know they previously had it but eventually recovered.
These figures, drawn from a nationally representative survey conducted from May 31 to June 9 by the EdWeek Research Center, illustrate the toll of a highly variable and unpredictable disease that’s still mysterious to researchers and portions of the general public.
The survey reflects responses from 219 district leaders, 120 school principals, and 817 teachers.
Long COVID consists of COVID symptoms that persist or worsen for at least three months after an initial infection. The condition often makes it difficult to work, engage in physical activity, or even stand up for long periods of time.
Angela Jackson, director of operations for Piedmont Classical High School, a charter school in Greensboro, N.C., said earlier this month that her long COVID symptoms have improved, but not disappeared, since she first contracted COVID in April 2021.
She missed more work this past school year than at any point during her previous three decades on the job.
“I still have up days and down days with no real reason,” Jackson said. “My brain still does not work the same, so I have to pay much more attention.”
The survey results also show that a sizable percentage of people who have previously had long COVID eventually recovered, which was not a given when the disease first emerged in the early days of COVID-19 spread.
“It was hard to exercise or do anything because of how winded I would get,” said one anonymous survey respondent. “I finally felt more normal after a few months.”
Some educators might not even realize they have colleagues with long COVID. Among teachers, principals, and district leaders who have or have had long COVID, 17 percent say they haven’t told anyone about their condition, and only 16 percent say they’ve told supervisors at work. Thirty-seven percent of long COVID sufferers have told co-workers about their condition.
Long COVID symptoms range widely and last a long time
The federal government classifies long COVID as a disability. That means employers are obligated to accommodate employees who have it.
But it’s not always easy for educators to convince their districts those accommodations are necessary—if they even try to secure them in the first place. Part of the reason is that long COVID is a disease that manifests itself differently in nearly every person who gets it. Anonymous survey respondents shared a wide range of symptoms.
One person said she developed “parosmia,” finding strong smells so nauseating that colleagues assumed she was pregnant. Others shared that they’ve had “crippling brain fog,” elevated body temperature, short-term memory loss, chronic fatigue, heightened anxiety, and chest congestion.
In December 2022, two years after her first bout of COVID, Julia, an elementary interventionist, had finally started feeling like herself again. But a few months later, in April, she got COVID again. (Julia requested that her last name and where she works not be printed to protect her anonymity.)
She didn’t leave her house for two weeks and still couldn’t stand up and move normally for another week. She used up all of her sick days at work and won’t have any more in case further emergencies come up next school year.
“COVID is just always hanging over my head,” Julia said.
It’s not easy to diagnose long COVID—or convince others you have it
Many long COVID sufferers say they struggle to convince doctors and acquaintances that they actually have a chronic illness.
A sizable portion of educators with long COVID say they haven’t shared their illness with close connections like family members, friends, and colleagues. Only 43 percent of educators with long COVID say they’ve told their doctor about their condition. Seventeen percent said they haven’t told anyone.
Even for people who aren’t dealing with long COVID themselves, the disease can take an emotional toll.
The disease has flown under the radar for many, but a substantial share of educators say they know someone who has had it. One in four survey respondents said they know at least one colleague with long COVID, and 15 percent say they know at least one student suffering from the illness. Just shy of one in five respondents said they know at least one family member with long COVID.
Several respondents mentioned loved ones who died from long COVID. One respondent said their grandfather now struggles to walk and breathe on his own after contracting long COVID.
“His life has completely changed because of it,” the person wrote.