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After 18 years working in Tasmania's education sector, Hilary Purdie has been sidelined due to long Covid. Picture: Supplied.

Australia’s educators battle with long Covid-19

Hilary Purdie first realised something wasn’t right when she couldn’t remember the names of her students. 

It was the Hobart-based school principal’s first day back at work after being struck down with Covid-19, and she felt absolutely exhausted.

“It's only a small school, there's 80 kids, but I know every child, all their sibling names and every parent,” the 47-year-old told Education Review.

“I stood out in the playground and I went, 'Hello... Sweetie,' and I was just looking at this kid going, 'I know exactly who you are, but I just can’t remember your name.'”

Hilary was fully vaccinated when she tested positive for Covid-19 in June, and six weeks later, her life continues to be impacted everyday.

Her ongoing symptoms include daily fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pains, disturbed sleep, anxiety and cognitive difficulties. 

“The cognitive impairment is so much more than losing a few words or getting a bit tired – it is genuinely incapacitating,” she says.

“My biggest concern is that I don’t know how long this will last.

“Previously I would have been the one responsible for assessing the risks, and making a variety of contingency plans. 

“I don’t have the cognitive capacity to do this, so I have to ask and rely on others to make these decisions for me.”

Although little is known about the phenomenon, studies have indicated that women may be more likely to develop long Covid than men. 

Recent data from Australia’s longest running post-Covid clinic showed that most female patients are aged in their 40s and 50s, and work in health or education.

Kiri, a Sydney-based special needs teacher, first caught Covid-19 in January while on school holidays with her family. 

The mother-of-two was diagnosed with long Covid in April and recently resumed work remotely.

She says while her school has been extremely supportive, she can't imagine going back into the classroom this year.

“I wake up exhausted every single day, even when I feel like I've had a good sleep,” she says.

“It uses up all of my energy just to get my brain to work, and as I'm trying to slowly get back to work, I find that things are taking much longer.”

Although Kiri can’t attend school in person due to having Covid symptoms, she can no longer access Covid payments because she isn’t testing positive. 

After exhausting most of her work leave, this has meant Kiri has had to take unpaid leave since March.

“I'm not one hundred percent confident in using every day of leave I have, because my youngest son has really bad asthma and he’s regularly off school,” she says.

“The department has tried to talk to the EDConnect people, but they say I'm not entitled to any other leave.”

Estimates from the Actuaries Institute say that if the current rate of daily Covid cases of around 30,000 continue in Australia, up to 100,000 people could be suffering severe long Covid in the next three months.

While the full extent of long Covid in schools remains unknown, emerging evidence suggests frontline workers, including teachers, may continue to be disproportionately affected.

"I wonder if part of the reason why it's mostly women who work in education is because we were already burnt out before Covid arrived," Kiri said.

"I was exhausted when I got it, and I didn't rest straight away until my body forced me too.

"The one thing I have learnt is that I can't do everything anymore, and that will affect my work."

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