The UK risks losing hundreds of experienced teachers because of the debilitating effects of long Covid, campaign groups have said.
The teaching profession is the second worst affected, with tens of thousands of people suffering from Covid-19-linked symptoms that last more than 12 weeks and can extend for more than a year.
Researchers say the return to school of millions of pupils this week and the pressure to return to face-to-face teaching is forcing some teachers to make a decision between their careers and their health.
Rules designed to help the long-term sick return to work are unsuitable for teachers who do not have the option of working from home, campaigners said.
Teachers also have less generous sick pay provision than healthcare workers – the only profession in the UK worse hit by the long-term condition, said Long Covid Support, a group advocating change to Britain’s benefit system and workplace rules.
“We know that there are some people who are back to work who are literally living to work because they are crashing all evening and all weekend,” said Kirsty Stanley, a member of Long Covid Support’s employment group. “That’s not going to be sustainable.”
“Generally employers want you full time or they don’t want you. There’s no flexibility about keeping a valuable teacher who has been teaching for years and supporting them to work in a part-time capacity.”
One teacher, who set up a Facebook group joined by some 500 teaching colleagues, told The National that she remains in bed for 18 hours after a single shift because of exhaustion.
The woman, who uses the alias of Kodama Allende online, said the management at her school had started the process to remove her because of how difficult it has been to return to work after contracting the virus in March last year.
“We're trying to keep our jobs but we're not the people who should be fighting this - we struggle to make ourselves a cup of tea let alone learn the law,” she said.
She said she has only been able to maintain in her part-time job because of the limited hours teaching predominantly older pupils and because she had been allowed to teach some classes online. It is harder for primary schoolteachers who spend all day in the classroom with younger children.
The group and some unions are calling for the condition to be labelled a disability, to give teachers more protection and to force employers by law to consider alternative working options for teachers who currently struggle to work full days.
Long Covid can cause shortness of breath, fatigue and organ damage, making it impossible for teachers to do their jobs properly. Unions are also calling for financial compensation for teachers who caught Covid-19 in schools.
Unions expressed concerns about the potential effects of the return of 10.3 million pupils to schools in the UK this week. Children make up the largest unvaccinated section of the population.
Patrick Roach, the head of the NASUWT teaching union, described long Covid among teachers as a potential “ticking time bomb”.
It is not clear why some people are so badly affected. Statistics suggest a 10th of people who test positive for Covid-19 go on to experience long-term problems.
The UK’s statistics agency reported this week that 380,000 people reported experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19 for more than a year. It said that about a million people in Britain experienced the symptoms of long Covid during the four-week period of the survey.
Two thirds said their day-to-day activities were affected while about a fifth said their activities had been “limited a lot”. Most commonly affected were women aged 35 to 69.
Fatigue was the most commonly reported symptom followed by shortness of breath, muscle ache and difficulty concentrating.
A number of studies are investigating the causes of long Covid and why some people are more affected than others, including an examination of ethnicity, age and gender.
David Strain, who heads the Long Covid Clinic at Exeter University Medical School, said: “The importance of understanding why some people are left with lasting symptoms often after only minor original infections cannot be underestimated.”