Prince William Teacher Shares How COVID-19 Devastated her Family

| October 5, 2020 | 0 Comments | Community, Education

Catherine Smart felling healthy with her family dog (submitted by Catherine Smart.)

Prince William County Schools high school teacher Catherine Smart will return to the classroom in November. In the midst of a deadly pandemic she will return to teaching more than a hundred students in a school of 3,000.

Smart knows that she is perhaps the least likely to catch COVID-19. She has already tested positive for the disease and thus may carry antibodies protecting her from a new infection. However, that does not make her any less afraid. Smart is terrified of COVID-19 because she has seen what it can do. COVID-19 devastated her otherwise healthy family, leaving her, her 17-year-old son and her husband debilitated for months.

Seeing what COVID-19 did to a healthy athletic teenager, she worries for the safety of her students and her colleagues. She worries about reinfecting her family members, whose health has already been compromised. She worries that COVID-19 could quickly spread through a school population without any warning signs like fever or coughing. She worries it would spread beyond the school to vulnerable community members. And she worries that people feel like they are done with COVID-19, so they have begun to doubt its seriousness.

“It brews. It peculates in you. It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she said. “As a teacher my concern with the school is that you don’t know. Someone can just be walking around donating virus cells to people.”

Back in June, Smart’s older son had just finished his freshman year of college. To celebrate he and his buddies made a road trip to the beach in South Carolina. Virginia was just entering Phase 2 restrictions, and the Smarts did not know anyone who had been affected by COVID-19. “It seemed so theoretical to us,” she said.

Various medicines family members were taking while suffering from COVID-19 over the summer of 2020.

She and her husband struggled over whether to let him go. Then, eventually, they decided it was probably safe for the young man to go have fun with his friends, rather than sit inside with his parents all summer.

But in South Carolina, the people he witnessed were not taking COVID-19 seriously. No one was wearing masks, her son told her, not even in restaurants.

A few days later, one of her son’s friends informed him that he had tested positive for COVID-19. In response, all of the boys got tested, and all received positive test results.

Smart’s son suffered only two days of mild fatigue, but as the family quarantined, the disease spread amongst them. “I can’t stop kicking myself that we let him go,” Smart said. “Thankfully, we only infected ourselves.”

Almost immediately, COVID-19 hit her younger son, who was 17. He started to have violent stomach convulsions, leaving him doubled over in pain. They rushed him to the ER as he vomited repeatedly. He was given anti-nausea medication and an IV drip to fight dehydration. But that would not be the end of his treatment. He ended up in the ER multiple times for stomach pain and cramping. Doctors monitored his condition as he could not keep food down and quickly lost about 30 pounds. A gastroenterologist discovered COVID-19 had resulted in long-lasting damage to his intestines. After months, he is just now starting to see signs of improvement, but still keeps a large bottom of anti-nausea medication near his bed.

Catherine Smart home sick with COVID-19 during the summer of 2020.

Smart said he is no longer the healthy boy who swam on his high school team and rode his bicycle on weekends. Although entering his senior year, he only wants to attend school virtually. The mental toll has been enormous as well. He asks, “am I ever going to be healthy gain?”

Meanwhile, other family members also became ill, though it manifested differently for each of them. “We had it, one or two symptoms at a time, and they will go away, and new symptoms would show up.” That was the main reason she and her husband insisted on getting everyone tested, so they could know for sure. It turns all they all tested positive.

Smart, who was taking care of her son, experienced debilitating headaches and body aches, which left her bedridden for weeks. She also needed an IV drip for dehydration and steroids. She was supposed to do contract work over the summer, but COVID-19 interrupted her plans.

Her husband experienced horrible muscle aches and pains and long-lasting fatigue. His COVID-19 symptoms kept him out of work for a month. Together, the family had seen about eight doctors over the months of the summer months.

“None of us had fevers,” she noted, and they caught it from an asymptomatic carrier. “As a teacher my concern with the school is you don’t know. You can just be walking around donating virus cells to people.”

Smart is not an activist. She does not routinely go head to head with the school division. It took some soul-searching before she decided to share her story and to speak out against PWCS’s 50% hybrid model of returning to in-person learning.

“I looked at my son and said, ‘If that happened to anyone [and I hadn’t spoken up] I don’t think I could forgive myself,’” she said. “These are our babies. These are our kids. Teachers love them as if they were their own.”

And Smart feels that virtual-only education is working. She is constantly impressed by the work Prince William County Schools has done to make it a success and does not think a 50% in-person plan will be an improvement.

“The ITs are amazing!” she said. “We have the award-winning Katie Fielding of Woodbridge High School; she has revolutionized so much of how teachers have done what they do. We have Billy Watts!” She explains it has created another kind of school community.

As a parent who commuted and worked long hours when her children were young, she understands that parents rely on schools, but that does not make going back safe. If the army is not sending its workers into offices, should the division be opening schools?

“I love being a teacher more than any other job I’ve ever had. I miss my students so much,” she said, but she does not think in-person is a good decision.

Students will be socially distanced. Teachers who have already been working 80-hour weeks would now be responsible for in-person and virtual instruction while trying to keep themselves and their students safe. It does not seem tenable to her. She does not expect instruct will improve in the classroom. If anything, she thinks it will suffer. Teachers are doing an amazing job, but there are just so many hours in a day- just so much stress they can withstand and do an excellent job.

Smart decided to talk in front of the school board, to let people know her story. She expects she will return to school and is setting up a space to live separate from her family in the basement.

However, she does not think it is the right decision for the schools to make. And would advise parents to strongly consider all virtual learning.

She believes that people can ignore the virus. It is easy to do until they have experienced it firsthand.

“This virus is real,” she said. “This will shred people and we don’t have the ability to stop it.”

© 2020, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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Category: Community, Education

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