Is it teaching, or is it Long COVID?
But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness.
-Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
Quarantine was rough. I was pretty sick for a few days, and a little sick for many more days. I spent a lot of time alone over the winter holidays because I maintained a likely contagious infection for over two weeks, I missed the first week of classes after winter break, and then, after a few weeks, things seemed to go back to normal, give or take occasional brief bouts of brain fog or fatigue.
Last week, for example, I tried to write a piece for this newsletter and couldn’t really get it to work. It was relevant to debate over the voucher bills in the SC House and Senate, but my brain would just not allow me to form it into an arc that felt logical and clear to me, so I just put it out and hoped it would make enough sense.
Then, towards the end of the past week, I started to feel really worn down. This weekend, I did something I almost never do, and spent the better part of two days in bed. Friday night, I was so tired I was nearly incoherent. On Saturday, my muscles felt weak and my brain just would not focus. As I write this, my head still feels very fuzzy.
These symptoms are consistent with Long COVID. They are also consistent with spending eight or more hours a day teaching in Henry McMaster’s South Carolina.
At the beginning of the ongoing pandemic, when our school returned to in-person learning, the district required teachers to fill out a daily electronic form identifying what were then considered common symptoms of COVID-19. This was, of course, before vaccines, before widely available testing, and before further research and a long series of variants made the list obsolete.
On the list were items like “headache” and “muscle soreness”. A running joke among teachers became, “Is it COVID, or is it teaching?”
The district changed the form repeatedly, eliminating symptoms from the list, presumably because too many people were reporting that they had the symptoms virtually every day. What teacher doesn’t regularly have headaches, back aches, sore throat, etc?
While at least one in ten people infected with COVID are apparently at risk for Long COVID, it’s too early to say if that is what’s causing my symptoms, or if it’s the job, itself. But that, in itself, is a pretty powerful indictment of our failure to make education a sustainable, healthful career choice (or a sustainable, healthful experience for students). Many of my teacher friends regularly spend Saturdays and maybe Sundays recovering from the week— which for most of us is a sustained, intense, marathon. Students constantly need something, constantly ask questions, constantly need help and redirection and— in early grades and special education classes— may need physical help, may need to be fed, changed, carried, hugged, separated. It’s rewarding, but it’s exhausting, and many teachers are not well, much of the time.
A friend of mine who is a special education teacher shared a beautiful story on Facebook this week about all that went into helping a student get to the point of being able to use a simple phrase (while also dealing with “3 meetings after school in the same week, paperwork due everywhere, students with colds, coughs, drippy little noses, and the list goes on-- it's just been a tough one”). Her story touched on both the power of teaching to do more than raise or lower test scores, and the emotional and physical tolls the job exacts from those who do it.
I teach high school, and my students are great. They are mostly self-directed, sometimes even self-motivated. And even I am often emotionally, spiritually, and physically emotionally exhausted at the end of the week. Which is why ongoing attacks against teachers in the name of a combined public school censorship/ private school deregulation/ public school defining/ private school voucher campaign have pushed many of us past the point of burnout.
There were four school closures/ lockdowns in my district alone this week due to a gun incident and bomb threats (evidently from a district high school student who has sense been arrested). In the same week, anyone watching the local news or following the start of the legislative session got to hear about rhetoric and legislation aimed at redirecting public funds to private schools and organizations, muzzling teachers and librarians, and other anti-school nonsense.
On top of that, reopening strategies which haven’t prioritized staff or student health, haven’t improved ventilation, and have essentially pretended no one gets COVID anymore— and that if they do, they quickly get better— have left many people too sick or too disabled (or too dead) to work in schools. I know that if I continue to feel the way I do as I write this, it will not be possible to continue.
So while I don’t have the energy to fully put into words what we should do with that reality, I think a start is to recognize that it is reality, and to call on our leaders to take more actions to mitigate the spread of dangerous viruses, understand and treat long-term illness, and improve learning and working conditions in schools. Given that SC’s current education priorities are attacking bogeymen (through legislation copied and pasted from national rightwing thinktanks) and passing vouchers (again with legislations copied and pasted from the same thinktanks) that will mostly affect only a small segment of (largely wealthy) families, I don’t have much hope for us doing any of those things here, or in similar states across the country.
What you can also do is contact your legislators and encourage others to do the same.
In South Carolina, certain politicians want to whitewash and censor education— without constituents being seen or heard. However, when we come together as a collective voice, we are louder than any politician, private interest, or bigot. This Wednesday, the South Carolina House is likely meeting to discuss the censorship bill H. 3278. The discussion will likely start around noon. Please do what you can to make sure the people of South Carolina are heard when legislators discuss students’ right to learn, and if you can, be at the State House on Wednesday and ask to meet with your representative to let them know you oppose efforts to censor history, books, and concepts just because some legislators don’t like them. If you’re not sure what to say, SCEA has a great form you can send your representative here.
Obviously, I am not a health expert. Here are some reads on long-term COVID and other long-term outcomes of viral infection:
Choutka, et al. “Unexplained post-acute infection syndromes”. Nature. May 2022.
Davis, et al. “Long COVID: major findings, mechanisms and recommendations”. Nature. January 2023.
Ducharme, Jamie. “It isn’t just long COVID. Post-viral illnesses are more common than you think.” Time. December 2022.
National Institutes of Health. “Long Covid”
Those symptoms sheets sound ridiculous!Texas, where I live, has a lot of education legislation in the works this session- from pay raises to vouchers. Who knows what will happen. Utah bundled vouchers (scholarships) with teacher pay raise after it couldn’t pass on its own.