When Susan, a teacher at a Rapid City Area Schools high school, tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of last October, she said she knew it was contracted while teaching.
The Journal confirmed Susan's identity and agreed to provide anonymity. Her name has been changed out of her concerns for repercussions from her employer.
Susan said she had been “extremely cautious” throughout the first two months of school, as she was concerned about catching COVID-19 before her son’s wedding in October 2020.
“I was ordering groceries and having them delivered, we haven’t eaten out since before the pandemic, and we don’t go to church anymore,” she told the Journal Wednesday. “After the wedding, I was concerned if I would get sick because of that, so I continued to be careful. My first symptoms were 20 days after the wedding, and when I talked to the school nurse when she tested me, she said it wasn’t from the wedding.”
Susan had given an exam to her class five days before her first symptoms appeared and sat next to several students to help them. Her first symptoms appeared on Oct. 29, the first day her school was closed and went to remote learning.
Susan tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 30. Four days later, everyone else in her household had it, too.
“It hit me instantly. I was standing in my classroom talking to a colleague and all of a sudden I felt lightheaded and nauseous. I thought I was going to throw up, so I called out sick,” she said.
After she went home and slept for several hours, she woke up and began trying to find a COVID-19 test. At the time, South Dakota’s cases were beginning to peak, and for three days, no tests were readily available.
Finally, she contacted Superintendent Lori Simon, who got RCAS Occupational Health Services Coordinator Amber Tilberg to come to her house and give her a rapid test — the school district was just beginning to receive the free testing kits from the state Department of Health.
“She came to my house and tested me on the front steps in the dark. Fifteen minutes later, she called me and told me I was positive,” Susan said. She began retracing her steps to figure out her close contacts, and they were all notified by the next morning.
Susan said her life changed after that evening.
“It’s been almost a year now, and I am not the same. You think [COVID] is no big deal until you have it and you realize you were not the same as you were before. There are a lot that are, but there are a lot that aren’t, too. I’m lucky — there are people a lot worse off than me,” she said.
Teaching after COVID
Susan was especially worried about contracting COVID since she had several pre-existing conditions that made her more susceptible to severe illness and hospitalization. She has had bronchitis, pneumonia twice, lung disease, and was diagnosed with asthma several months before testing positive for the coronavirus.
“I had been hospitalized several months prior to the pandemic; I needed oxygen and steroids before COVID was even a thing. I was really scared that would happen again,” she said.
COVID was hard on her, Susan said, but she was never hospitalized. She slept 16-18 hours a day, her entire body hurt, she had a constant headache and the simple action of getting up to go to the bathroom exhausted her.
Her husband’s symptoms were less severe, but he was fully recovered after 10 days. Not Susan.
Eleven months later, she said she is still dealing with the repercussions of her infection.
Susan said she was bothered by light for several months afterward, still experiences "brain fog" and is exhausted all the time. The summer before the pandemic, Susan could mow two lawns and feel perfectly fine; now it’s a struggle just to do her own. She said she had a constant headache for weeks following her illness and had chest pains for no reason.
“I still felt like I couldn’t do anything [after I recovered],” Susan said. “I was so lucky I got COVID when we were teaching remotely; I wouldn’t have been able to even prepare stuff for [in-person] substitutes. I would update things on Canvas and after a half hour on the computer my head would hurt.”
Going back to the classroom after she recovered was difficult for Susan.
“It was like being a first-year teacher all over again, even though I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years,” she said.
The remote teaching structure was foreign to her, so she had to learn how to use the online learning management system to upload lessons. After her bout with COVID, Susan said it was a struggle to keep up with it.
Grading students' work and attendance was also a problem, she said. With a revolving door of students quarantined or sick with COVID, Susan said it was time consuming to keep track of who was absent and who was back.
For some students, Susan would not hear from them at all.
“It was an emotional toll for everyone regardless. Seeing everyone going through it was rough,” she said.
Susan said she appreciated the support she received from the school district while she was ill. Being able to use Fridays to complete administrative work was a "blessing," she said. Her school principal and Tilberg checked in with her occasionally.
Post-COVID syndrome diagnosis
Susan waited until Christmas break to go to her doctor about her persisting symptoms. She had been taking a low-dose seizure medicine for her migraines, which she said helped a little, and went to the chiropractor as laying around sick for weeks hurt her back.
She was still experiencing pressure in her chest and back pain; however, she chalked it up to anxiety.
“I was so overwhelmed at school; going to the doctor would be taking up time. It was difficult to be absent from school, so I put off going to doctor about it,” Susan said.
Her doctor told her she had symptoms of "long COVID," but it wasn’t until she had some testing done and saw a pulmonologist after the school year let out in May that she was diagnosed with post-COVID syndrome.
“We don’t know if it’ll go away, but we can treat the symptoms and try,” her doctor told her.
Susan said her condition has improved, but it is slow going. Her health has not been restored to its pre-COVID state.
“Day to day I don’t notice it, but when I reflect, I feel better than I did a few months ago. It’s a slow process,” she said.
'We’re acting like nothing’s happened'
This year is a little easier than last, Susan said. She's now familiar with the learning management system and dealing with the pandemic in the classroom has, in some ways, become more manageable as it has drawn on.
But in other ways, Susan said it has only become more difficult.
The RCAS Board of Education removed some of the COVID-19 mitigation measures implemented in the 2020-21 school year. Face mask wearing protocols changed, physical barriers have been removed from school buildings, social distancing guidelines have been amended, and the board ceased internal contact tracing.
Within the first three weeks of the 2021-22 school year, active COVID-19 cases within the school district have increased dramatically.
On Friday, RCAS reported 209 active student cases and 29 staff cases, and a further 524 students and 35 staff are quarantined as close contacts. Rapid City Area Schools accounts for nearly a quarter of all K-12 student cases reported statewide, according to recent data from the DOH.
Additionally, Monument Health has begun to see pediatric COVID patients being admitted to the Rapid City hospital, and Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Shankar Kurra said Wednesday they are expecting to see more strain in the pediatric wing in the coming weeks.
RCAS’ teacher cases account for 12% of the statewide total, according to statistics Friday.
Susan said the district is experiencing issues with all of the absences; there are fewer substitutes available, and administrators and paraprofessionals are being pulled to cover classes. Susan said she wonders how this is affecting students’ learning.
“There are a lot of teachers that have resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to get sick. They think it’s inevitable, teaching in a room with no mitigation measures,” she said.
Susan’s doctor told her that everyone in her class should be wearing a mask, so she tried to get an Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation and was denied. She was told the school cannot enforce required mask wearing.
Susan wears an N-95 mask every day as her only line of defense, she said. Susan is afraid, but she said all she can do is watch as more students and staff fall ill.
“It feels like we’re acting like nothing’s ever happened. I’ve been told our hands are tied — we can’t even ask a kid to wear masks if they have symptoms,” Susan said. “We can’t ask questions if we think a student has COVID. If you’re wondering if the elimination of the policies had any effect, look at the [case] numbers and there it is.”
She hopes that compassion can be restored and called on the Rapid City community to be more understanding of others’ situations caused by the pandemic.
“I think it’s important that we all remember that while some people have seen this be a mild illness, many, many others have seen this be severe, life-altering and long-lasting," Susan said. "If your family hasn’t been deeply impacted, please remember that others have in ways we may never understand.
"We need compassion.”