HE has its head in the sand on long Covid, and it could prove costly

Long Covid is far more common than most people let on, so institutions must be ready to support its students, staff and faculty – here’s how



Connecticut College
30 May 2023
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Long covid

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We were hesitant to sound too alarmist when publishing our Inside Higher Education article “Long Covid is here to stay” back in May 2022. However, since then, the severity of the issue has become increasingly clear. According to the US Center for Disease Control, more than 40 per cent of US adults have had the Covid-19 virus and, of those, 19 per cent continue to have symptoms that qualify them as long Covid sufferers. Further analysis shows that one in 13 adults in the US has symptoms of long Covid. Similar statistics are reported by the World Health Organization and note that the symptoms of long Covid often have a debilitating effects on people’s lives.

Globally, a recent systematic analysis by The Lancet revealed that 45 per cent of Covid-19 survivors, regardless of hospitalisation status, were experiencing a range of unresolved symptoms at approximately four months after their Covid infection. We write this article urging colleges and universities to investigate long Covid prevalence and provide necessary resources and support.

Understanding long Covid’s impact on HE requires examining three areas: its effect on the nervous system, cognitive abilities and learning; its effect on the job sector; and its effect on marginalised communities.

Long Covid’s impact on thinking and learning: Common symptoms include fatigue (84 per cent), malaise (70 per cent), “brain fog” (64 per cent), shortness of breath (61 per cent) and chest tightness (56 per cent). The Atlantic highlights “brain fog” in particular – an overarching term used to describe an impairment that impacts focus, capacity to hold information in the mind and ability to block distractions. Importantly, patients experiencing this impairment in their ability to think and learn not only feel a loss of self but tend to hide symptoms owing to its lack of direct visibility and out of fear of social stigmas surrounding mental illness.

Long Covid and the job sector: The Guardian’s analysis reveals long Covid affecting more than 1.1 million people in the US; more than 23 per cent of people with long Covid cannot work, and 46 per cent need to reduce their hours. Long Covid undoubtedly impacts higher education faculty, staff and students, whose work relies on high cognitive functioning.

Long Covid and marginalised communities: Younger adults, women and Hispanic populations are disproportionately affected by long Covid. Historically, marginalised populations face increased illness severity and inadequate healthcare support. African Americans, for example, are expected to have higher long Covid prevalence and face healthcare barriers. Under-resourced communities might require more support on our campuses.

Data demonstrating the prevalence of long Covid in higher education has yet to be systematically collected and published. We recently launched a new research study to investigate its prevalence in higher education. On our own campus, results from a total of 652 students, faculty and staff – an overall response rate of 24 per cent – revealed that 40 per cent of participants reported having continued long Covid symptoms, with men less likely to report having those symptoms. Assuming the survey results are representative of the campus population as a whole, our results suggest that more than a third of those who live and work on our campus may have experienced and/or may still be experiencing some long Covid symptoms.

Long Covid poses a significant threat to the teaching and learning missions of our institutions. Even if just 10 per cent of faculty, staff and students have long Covid, think about the numbers on your campus. Is higher education genuinely ready to help those suffering from long Covid? In the meantime, we offer a list of suggestions for institutions wishing to support their students, faculty and staff:

Create a task force

We recommend that you put together a task force to examine and closely follow the science and what it means for your college or university community. A task force should allow input from various departments and sources, which can lead to comprehensive plan and approach development. We also recommend keeping the institution’s population aware of the task force’s findings to allow for complete transparency.

Hold educational events

Learn about and educate your community on local long Covid resources available for your students and employees. This can be carried out through the investment of time and resources into research specific to your institution or by hosting events with key speakers who are knowledgeable in this area. These events can create conversations on campus that result in better accessibility of resources and information on important health-related topics. The spread of awareness of the impacts of long Covid will also provide a sense of support and understanding to students going through it.

Check your disability and accessibility resources

Examine your institution, its office of disability or accessibility services and how ready it is to serve those suffering from long Covid. Are there, for example, policies in place that could be adjusted or altered to fit the needs of long Covid sufferers? By analysing the prevalence and severity of long Covid on campus, institutions can be better equipped to handle the disability service needs of this population.

Ensure support for marginalised individuals

Ensure that your resources are culturally grounded and readily accessible, especially for those who are from marginalised backgrounds or with disabilities. As demonstrated above, marginalised populations are disproportionately impacted by the effects of long Covid, putting them at higher risk. Because of the disproportionality of long Covid’s effects, it is important for institutions to keep these populations in mind when crafting new support strategies and resources.

Remember: long Covid is an equity issue

Understand that this is an equity issue that needs to be addressed through proactive actions and community-wide conversations. Equity in healthcare has always been a challenge, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. Long Covid’s impacts on different populations vary based on socio-economic background, ethnicity, race, age and disability status, raising the importance of conversations within your institution.

Long Covid cannot be treated linearly within every population, making it important to understand the difference in experiences and prevalence within different groups affected by these symptoms. When formulating an action plan to intervene with long Covid, equity should be the overarching guiding principle. We recommend collecting and examining data that explores differences between populations within your community and accounting for these differences when formulating a comprehensive, proactive plan to address challenges within education because of long Covid impairments.

Well-being is, or should be, the cornerstone of our institutions. We need to act swiftly. As research on long Covid continues to clarify its severity and prevalence, it is important for institutions to get ahead of the issue. By developing a proactive and preventive approach to how long Covid may impact the students, faculty and staff at your institution, you can create a safety net to better support your community.

Mays Imad is an assistant professor in the department of biology at Connecticut College, US. Her work on higher education, the neurobiology of learning, and trauma-informed teaching and learning appears regularly in Inside Higher Education and other publications.

Skylar Magee is a recent neuroscience graduate from Connecticut College.

John Nugent is the director of institutional research and planning at Connecticut College.

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