Most children recover from Covid-19 in a few weeks, but some are left with lingering symptoms. We find out what schools must do to support students with long Covid.
When Anna, who’s now nine, first contracted Covid-19 at the end of March 2020, her symptoms were very mild; she just had a cold. But later that year when it was time to go back to school, she got sick.
“She was very, very tired,” says her mum, Helen Goss, who’s a key volunteer at UK-based international charity Long Covid Kids. “She was getting a sore tummy and headaches every day. The light was too bright for her. The normal noise of the classroom was painful. And her teacher told me she’d just put her head on her desk and look like a zombie.”
Now in our third year living with Covid-19, over 100 million people worldwide and 1.8 million in the UK now suffer from long Covid, which is characterised by Covid-like symptoms that persist for longer than 12 weeks after an initial positive test. Those with the condition can experience physical and mental symptoms, often including fatigue, body ache, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, decreased cognitive abilities or brain-fog, insomnia, heart palpitations and joint pain. Scientists are still learning about how long this illness can last, with some people reporting they still had lingering symptoms months after the initial infection. As we discover more about this condition, especially the way it affects children, schools need to be mindful of their approach.
How does long Covid affect children?
Explaining the symptoms of long Covid can be especially difficult and traumatising for children, especially when they’re pushed to engage in learning and schoolwork despite experiencing headaches, lapses in memory and concentration and debilitating fatigue. Even children who develop a mild or asymptomatic infection can be vulnerable to the virus’s long-lasting symptoms, with some studies suggesting that an estimated 10-14% of children and teenagers who contracted Covid-19 now suffer from long Covid.
During the past two years, young children have largely missed out on going to school due to two major lockdowns, where teachers relied on parents and carers to maintain their child’s learning when they couldn’t physically be in the classroom. While schools are working tirelessly to get their students’ educations back on track, pupils suffering from long Covid risk being left behind.
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How can schools help?
“A number of schools have been very supportive. Other schools have been really quite awful,” says Helen. “Some children are doing well when they’re allowed to have breaks throughout the day so they can do one activity, rest in the quiet space, and then do another activity.”
She adds the first step in supporting children with long Covid is simply by talking to parents and carers about how each day is affecting the child. However, Helen suggests the best-case scenario would be appointing a central communicator, who can keep track of diagnoses, accommodations requested, and other health data for each child.
Dr Elisa Perego, a London-based health researcher focusing on long Covid, says: “Schools must allow flexible hours, personalised schedules, and homeschooling. Long Covid can present with a relapsing-remitting pattern, with periods of worsening and others of improvement. It can also present as an invisible illness, and a child can be very ill without looking as such at first glance.”
Throughout the pandemic, it became extremely clear that Covid symptoms manifest differently for different people — and this is the same for children. With Covid-19 constantly evolving and mutating, it’s likely more and more children could develop long Covid, so schools must be prepared to change old working patterns to provide supportive environment necessary for every child to access education. As Dr Perego says: “Becoming chronically ill can be difficult and challenging. Be kind.”