Gwinnett teacher struggles with COVID-19 symptoms almost a year later

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A year ago, Ryan Proffitt was a healthy 38-year-old language arts teacher at Lanier High School who loved playing tennis.

Then he became sick. Months later, he’s still sick and 25 pounds lighter, battling long-term effects of what doctors now say was likely COVID-19.

Proffitt teaches students face-to-face in a classroom in the Gwinnett County school district, though he’s still dealing with heart irregularities, spontaneous rashes, indigestion and muscle pain. At night, his heart rate drops. Most mornings, it hurts to breathe.

He is considered to be among the estimated 10% of COVID-19 patients known as “long haulers,” whose symptoms last for months after infection. It’s especially challenging for teachers trying to hang onto jobs and health insurance while working with students inside classrooms.

“Everyone is measuring this pandemic based on deaths,” Proffitt said. “It’s ruining so many lives of people that it doesn’t kill.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Gwinnett County is among the metro Atlanta school districts that reopened classrooms in the fall, placing teachers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. The Gwinnett district has reported nearly 4,000 COVID-19 cases among staff and students since the school year began.

Faced with the risk, some Gwinnett teachers took leave, resigned or retired. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, says that at least 530 teachers have died from the coronavirus. The number is likely higher.

Across metro Atlanta, eight school districts reported more than 12,000 known cases of the coronavirus among students and staff from August through January.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that in-person instruction is safe with precautions — including low infection rates in the community. More than 13% of people tested for the coronavirus were positive in Gwinnett County in the two weeks ending Friday, according to state data.

Proffitt now barricades himself at his desk behind cardboard science fair posters, fans and an air purifier. He wears a face shield and motorized respirator over two face masks.

He and many other Gwinnett teachers want schools to shut down until teachers get vaccinated or community spread is under control. At the very least, they say, teachers with health concerns should be allowed to work virtually until schools are safer. As more students return to classrooms, they say there’s not adequate space for social distancing and for enforcing safety protocols.

Sloan Roach, school district spokeswoman, said in an email that staff members should report their concerns to principals.

“We acknowledge that social distancing has been and continues to be a challenge and we continue to remind staff and students to stay socially distanced from others as feasible,” she said.

Battling illness

Proffitt teaches ninth grade in the Center for Design and Technology program. He first developed a cough last February or early March. One morning his heart started beating so hard that it frightened him and he jumped out of bed.

At the time, he was denied COVID-19 testing because he didn’t have a fever. By the time wider testing became available, his came back negative.

In March, the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and metro Atlanta schools closed buildings and switched to virtual learning. By May, Proffitt was also experiencing chest pains. At the doctor’s office, his heart rate was so irregular he was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

His symptoms continued. Vomiting. Vision problems. Fatigue. By midsummer, as more became known about the long-term effects of COVID-19, his doctor diagnosed him as a long-hauler.

“There were so many nights and so many times that I didn’t know if I was going to wake up the next day,” he said.

When Gwinnett ordered teachers back into buildings in August, Proffitt said he still couldn’t stand up without blacking out. He said he requested an accommodation to work from home and was denied.

Fearing reinfection, he used paid time off and short-term disability leave to stay out of the classroom until the week before Thanksgiving. Then he went back to work because he couldn’t afford to lose his health insurance.

Proffitt said he received a merit bonus at the end of 2019 and was set to earn about $50,000 this year. The months of leave with reduced pay have dropped that to $39,000. Medical bills continue to mount.

Every time his stomach hurts, he wonders if his kidneys are shutting down. Every time his heart skips a beat, he contemplates an emergency visit to the cardiologist. He is gearing up for scans to ensure life-threatening blood clots have not formed in his legs.

“It’s Sophie’s Choice,” he said, “choosing between losing my job when I am sick with COVID … or risking my life to go in every day.”

Gwinnett Schools COVID-19 data

- Cases reported Feb. 11: 14 staff, 34 students

- COVID-19 cases reported since August: 1,365 staff; 2,595 students

- Total cases reported since August: 3,960

- Total number of students in system: 177,401