Here’s What College Students Need to Know About Long COVID
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- It's estimated that over 10% of people who have had COVID-19 may have also lived with long COVID.
- Students with long COVID may access disability services for accommodations.
- Experts believe universities should do more outreach to affected students.
The lingering effects of COVID-19 may be impacting the education of thousands of college students, and experts say the challenges those students face can be severe.
Some people who have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 can experience long-term effects, known as long COVID. The condition is usually defined as having symptoms that last longer than three months after infection. Those symptoms vary, but long COVID typically causes brain fog, breathing problems, a consistent cough, and extreme fatigue in those living with the condition.
Recent studies have shown that long COVID may be more common than initially thought.
The U.S. Census Bureau's summer household pulse survey found that 16.3 million people ages 18-65 in the U.S. had long COVID at the time. That's approximately 8% of working-age Americans, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institute.
A recent study published in The Lancet found that 12.7% of those who contracted COVID-19 later had long COVID symptoms.
Research has attempted to estimate long COVID's impact on society at large, but higher education experts say there hasn't been any way to measure its toll on colleges and universities definitively.
Still, the condition has undoubtedly impacted the lives of many students, leaving disability services offices to try to accommodate a new wave of needs.
Accommodations Available for Students With Long COVID
It's not uncommon for a student experiencing long COVID symptoms to need help completing specific tasks necessary to earn their degree, Katy Washington, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), told BestColleges.
First and foremost, Washington, who is also director of the Office of Disability Access at the University of North Texas, wants college students living with long COVID to know that accommodations for their condition are available.
The Department of Health and Human Services designated long COVID as a disability. That means students with this condition qualify for the same benefits afforded to other disabled students under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Students must request accommodations through their school's disability services office, Washington said.
While not all offices share the same process, the first step typically involves a student filling out an intake or registration form. Then, they submit documentation outlining their disability that normally comes from a medical doctor.
Washington added that not all doctors identify long COVID the same way. Other names for it may be "post-COVID symptoms" or "post-COVID condition," but offices will likely treat all these diagnoses the same.
"Whatever they call it is not really what we're looking for," she said. "We're looking at … whether it's impacting their daily life functions."
Long COVID symptoms may vary wildly, so it's up to each school's Office of Disability Access to address those needs individually. But there are some commonalities, Washington said.
For example, many students with long COVID experience increased fatigue, sometimes so severe that they must remain at home and bedridden. A disability services office may recommend schedule flexibility for this student, which would mean they would have the ability to miss classes without their attendance grade taking a hit.
Additionally, that student may need assistance with note-taking for days missed. Disability services offices can help with that, Washington said.
It's also common for students with long COVID to have trouble concentrating. For these students, Washington would recommend an accommodation for exam-taking. They may need extra time to take an exam or a break to complete it.
Breathing difficulties are also prevalent, so these students may need a schedule with longer breaks in between classes, or more leniency to arrive at class late if they need a break to walk from one class to another, she said.
Students with debilitating symptoms may need to postpone their studies. A disability services officer can help them plan to pick up where they left off in another semester.
When it comes to long COVID and college, Washington surmised, "there are days that are better than others for these students."
Educating Students About Long COVID Is Critical
Mays Imad is an assistant professor of biology at Connecticut College who plans to conduct a large-scale study to determine the prevalence of long COVID in higher education. As she sets out on that work, she said one of the biggest issues she's encountered is that many college students don't know what long COVID is.
That means some students may be living with long COVID unknowingly.
The issue is so acute, she said, that even most physiology students she spoke with about long COVID didn't know about the condition.
"I was noticing some of my students expressing how exhausted they were even when they weren't doing much or describing brain fog. I was also noticing how those same students would say, 'I don't know what happened to me?' or, 'I don't know what's wrong with me?'" she told BestColleges. "I wondered how many of them are blaming themselves when it could be long COVID."
Colleges and universities must educate the student body about long COVID so they can seek support if they need it, Imad said.
Still, even when a doctor diagnoses a student with long COVID, they may be hesitant to seek that support, AHEAD's Washington said.
Many of these students had never been identified as having a disability before in their lives. So it's difficult for them to come to grips with their new disability, she said. Disability services offices are trained to help students understand what is going on with them and accept their new reality.
"We meet them where they are," Washington said. "Some are not ready to own that identity yet, so we talk through that."