When Schools Get Long-Haul COVID

School learning mode by state. Ranking of in-person leaning index, 2020/21 school year. Virginia highlighted in red. Source: Burbio’s School Opening Tracker.

by James A. Bacon

“Long haul” COVID is the term used to describe COVID symptoms that persist far beyond the normal four weeks of infection. It seems that Virginia schools are experiencing long-haul COVID, too: maladies that have arisen long after the impact of the original illness — the shutdown of in-person learning — has passed. Like long-haul COVID for people, long-haul COVID for schools often involves symptoms not seen previously.

School districts around the nation are canceling classes for what they call “mental health days” on the grounds that students and staff need breaks to handle the pressure of returning to school, reports the Wall Street Journal.  More than a third of the 8,692 school closures reported this year have occurred in three states: North Carolina, Virginia, and Missouri.

The Journal article specifically cites school systems in Suffolk, Chesapeake and Richmond. Teachers are experiencing burnout, and superintendents are giving them time off to recoup. In large part, the burnout is a consequence of the COVID-driven flight to distance learning in the 2020/21 school year. Virginia public schools had the 7th-lowest rate of in-person learning in the country, by one set of measures in the Burbio K-12 School Opening Tracker and 3rd lowest by another set.

Reagan Davis, president of the Chesapeake Education Association teachers union,  told the WSJ that this school year is even more challenging than  2019/20, when schools abruptly went remote early in the pandemic and teachers toggled between virtual and in-person instruction. Davis, an eighth-grade teacher, said that this year he and his colleagues routinely work through 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. grading papers, catching up on administrative tasks because they have lost planning time while covering classes for absent teachers, and recording lessons for quarantined students.

The Journal also quotes Jonathan Young, vice chair of the Richmond school board. Students spent nearly 18 months at home over the previous two school years, Young said. Acknowledging the resulting collapse in standardized test scores, he says in retrospect that the decision to close in-school learning was not the right one. To help teachers cope this year, he would like the district to ease administrative requirements such as submitting daily lesson plans or attending professional development courses.

The Journal article has captured aspects of the problem, but there is much more to the story. So many Virginia public school children fell behind last year — more than 30% failed their English reading and 45% failed their math Standards of Learning exams — that administrators advanced everyone to the next grade with the expectation that teachers would work to catch them up this year. In other words, not only do teachers have the often-overwhelming challenges of a normal school year, they have to do remedial work with tens of thousands of students.

Alluded to only tangentially in the WSJ piece are the higher-than-normal teacher shortages that schools are experiencing.  Staffing shortfalls have long been chronic in school districts with the most challenging students (those most prone to disruption and resistant to learning), but the situation is worse this year. As a consequence, administrators are adding extra classes to the workload of the remaining teachers. Additionally, the new social-justice approach to school discipline requires teachers to assume the roles of counselors and social workers  for troubled kids whom schools can no longer suspend. Add to that the mandatory teacher “training” on diversity-equity-and-inclusion issues.

So, yes, many teachers are overwhelmed; they are burned out, and hundreds of them across Virginia are on the verge of quitting. And, as is all too often the case, teachers are most burned out in schools with poor minority students who have fallen farthest behind in their learning, are most disrespectful (and occasionally violent) toward teachers, and create the most disruption in classrooms.

Calling the days off “mental health days” makes it sound as if teachers are delicate flowers with frail, anxiety-prone psyches. Perhaps some are. But I suspect it would be more accurate to call the time off “burnout-recuperation days.” Whether teachers will claw back enough time to regain their equilibrium remains to be seen.

A related issue: the media accounts I’ve read do not indicate whether teacher time off, which translates directly into less classroom teaching time, will be made up at the end of the year; if not, students who need to spend more time in school to catch up, could in fact end up spending less time in class this year.

The afflictions of long-haul school COVID appear to be as acute as the original illness. The slide toward utter collapse continues unabated at many Virginia public schools.  Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin may discover that there are more pressing problems than ridding schools of Critical Race Theory and pornographic books.

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14 responses to “When Schools Get Long-Haul COVID”

  1. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    And we now have another “variant” appear from South Africa.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Covid-Omega? The end is nigh.

  2. vicnicholls Avatar

    Jim Bacon, I know Reagan. He’s a progressive in the true sense of the word. Notice the WSJ didn’t speak to folks like me.

    I’d tell them what lines of progressive “stuff” they advocate to get you to understand what is truly going on.


  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Apparently, there’s a thing called “Covid Toe”. Rumor has it that Aaron Rodgers has it. The best way to prevent it? Vaccines.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    So the schools that stayed in-person are not having these issues?

    How many in Virginia stayed in-person?

    Do we know how their teachers are doing? How about their kids? Did they stay on grade without falling back?

    How about an article on two on those schools experience in Virginia?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Thanks Matt.

        is this what you are referring to:


        is there a list of the schools who continued in-person and their SOL results

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar

          Pretty much. Mostly just the idea that the combination of in-person instruction (or lack thereof) and the rate of poverty enrollment played a huge role in the 2021 outcomes in Virginia.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            I don’t doubt for a minute that economically disadvantaged kids suffered
            from virtual schooling but I also wonder how those kids actually did at the schools that stayed in-person. Do we know which schools specifically and what those scores were?

          2. Matt Hurt Avatar

            Unfortunately no. There were so many kids that went back and forth between in-person and virtual that the records were not all that great. There was so much chaos that it was nearly impossible to keep track of who was doing what on which days. We tried looking at that, but soon realized we didn’t have data that was accurate enough for student level analysis.

            However, at the school level we do know, because all of the schools in the division were pretty much on the same schedule.

            Schools that were in-person more tended to have better outcomes than schools that were more virtual.

  5. Agreed that there are many positive and forward looking things that Governor-elect Youngkin could focus on with regard to education. Question is will he actually do so or merely continue to stoke the culture wars?

  6. Matt Hurt Avatar

    I was in a meeting a couple of weeks ago where a soon to be published research study about teacher burnout was discussed. According to the account, the findings in this study was that teacher perception of declining efficacy was the driving factor. That makes sense. Although teachers do bring home millions of dollars per year, they don’t get into the business for the money, they do it to help students achieve better outcomes. They couldn’t do that when kids have been home for 18 months and no one at home saw to it that they did their work. Come back this year, and kids are further behind than ever. Couple that with the ensuing quarantine protocols that are putting teachers and students out of school for extended periods, not because they were sick, but because they were simply in contact with someone who was, and not as much is getting done this year either.

    I agree that we do need to get our boots of the necks of our teachers so that they can do the best with the chaotic time they have allotted. They need to be provided with expectations and resources, not micromanaged and forced to do all kinds of craziness that someone believes will help them make up lost time.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I suspect there is a certain amount of concern that teachers will be blamed if the kids don’t catch up.


      1. Matt Hurt Avatar

        Only by fools. Folks in the know understand its all about the leadership, whether at the school, the division, or the state level. Sometimes superb leadership down the chain can overcome deficits from up the chain, but that’s an uphill battle.

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