Teachers have been at the frontline of Covid-19 exposure since the beginning of the pandemic, so it is no surprise that they are also the profession the most affected by Long Covid.

Ministry of Health data from 2022 shows that teachers are the occupation with the highest infection rate of 48%, and with Long Covid prevalence being between 10 and 20 percent in general, this results in high numbers of teachers with Long Covid. In 2023 an editorial led by epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig outlined the requirements for keeping children and teachers safe from Covid-19 and other airborne illnesses. As we approach the middle of 2024 we are no further along in providing these safe environments.

The Government’s response to the impacts of Covid-19 on teachers is disappointing. In a recent interview with Jack Tame, Education Minister Erica Stanford acknowledged that teachers have the highest levels of Covid infection as they are “surrounded by sick kids”, and yet was unaware that teachers also have the highest levels of Long Covid. Both the previous and current government have done little to either acknowledge the impacts of Covid-19 on our teachers, nor introduce measures to reduce transmission going forward. Instead they are focused on increasing attendance rates, which will inevitably increase the amount of Covid-19 circulating in schools.

In the UK a group of teachers with Long Covid has banded together to attempt to sue the government for not providing a safe working environment through the pandemic. According to a UK School’s Week article Long Covid Educators for Justice (LCEJ) want compensation from the Department of Education for those who lost their health, income and employment after working on the frontline during the pandemic.

We asked teachers in our Long Covid Support Group whether they thought this action would be possible in New Zealand. While the impetus for doing so is there they say “we just don’t have the energy.” Many of the teachers in our group have had to resign from jobs they loved due to ongoing Long Covid symptoms, people like Vicky and Jerry, who miss the kids they used to work with.

I worked in a High Needs unit at my local high school. I caught covid from school, coming down with it on the first day of the July school holidays nearly 2 years ago. I ended up having to resign after trying many times to get back to my job. Losing my job was devastating. I loved my kids and my job was my identity. It’s been so hard losing not just a job I hoped to be in until I retired but the very necessary income. I’m nearly 64 and it was a job I could do into my 70’s. Vicky.*

I got covid from school but unfortunately, I can’t prove that. Still, I remember the day I got covid, a year 10 boy came to me and told me that he was feeling sick and needed to go to school nurse and he kept coughing. After 3 days later, my symptoms started. Two years, I still suffer from long covid, away from school. My teaching registration will expire if I don’t back to school teaching. Horrible experience, I tried everything to recover, nothing works. Jerry.

Other teachers within the support group are still working, but are struggling to do so, and have no energy for other aspects of life.

I’ve been sick for several years now after catching Covid on the job. I’m aware of many teachers that have had to resign from their jobs without compensation, and how those who are still working have a subpar quality of life outside of work etc. Paula.

The effects on our teachers are significant, and they continue to be at the forefront of infection risk. With no public health measures in place to slow infection we can expect to see more teachers unable to teach due to Long Covid. With the Government slow to respond, The Public Health Communication Centre (PHCC) has issued a report recommending action that should be taken for public health, while groups such as Aotearoa Covid Action (ACA) are advocating for clean air in schools, both to protect our children, and our teachers. The alternative will be a continual decline in the health of our teachers, and the children they care for, a concern that teachers hold themselves:

I think there are lots of us teachers who caught covid from our students. It’s hard to avoid it when testing, masking, isolation etc is not mandated. Helen

Something that does worry me is so many teachers getting Covid over and over again. My school has had to close due to too many teaching staff away with Covid and we’re not the only school to have that happen. Every time you get Covid there is a risk of getting Long Covid. Schools are such a high risk environment. Vicky

Long Covid is a debilitating illness, affecting our teachers at a higher rate due to their increased exposure to Covid-19. We owe it to them to do our best to reduce transmission in schools and recognise the effects Long Covid is having on their lives.

People need to know that this insidious sickness is real and has caused so much damage to so many people, not just physically and cognitively but emotionally too. Vicky

What can you do?

  • Write to your MP, telling them of your concerns for teachers in your area and ask what the Government is doing to reduce transmission and support Long Covid sufferers.
  • Check out the resources on Aotearoa Covid Action, then band together with other concerned parents and raise the issues with your school Board of Trustees – they have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their staff and students.
  • If you are a teacher, join with other teachers to raise concerns with your Board of Trustees and your Union.
  • And if you know a teacher, check in with them and find out how they are really doing. They may need more support than you realise.

*(Some names have been changed for privacy reasons)