When Grand Island Public Schools moved to e-learning in March, Jessa Yager was ready.
As a seventh-grade social studies teacher in her seventh year of teaching at Barr Middle School, Yager said, she had innovative plans to teach her students virtually and keep them on task. But what she was not ready for was what would begin four days later.
Signs of trouble
Yager said she began to have a slight cough and decided to wait it out until her doctor’s appointment that next week. She said she continued to get “worse and worse” as she got a severe headache and lost her sense of taste and smell — all symptoms of COVID-19.
“I almost should have gone to the doctor sooner,” Yager said. “I just remember that doctor looked at me with all these symptoms and said, ‘I think you have it (COVID-19)’ and pushed for testing to get done. At that time, there were not many tests and they were not letting people do them. I heard her on the phone say, ‘She is pregnant and is really showing all the signs.’ That just struck fear in me. Then, it took six days for me to get the results.”
The test results came back positive for COVID-19.
Yager said she was 22 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She was worried that it could affect her pregnancy, which would have been devastating to her and her wife, Whitnee, as they had tried for five years to have a baby.
“My thought was, ‘Don’t take this away from us. This will not break me.’ That was what helped me the most,” she said. “The doctor also said that the womb is resilient. The baby was sucking all the nutrients and was why I got COVID; my kid was taking everything from me. But, if I could just keep resting and keep the nutrients going into my body, then the baby would be just fine.”
Because she was pregnant, Yager said, she was unable to take anything for her COVID-19 symptoms besides Mucinex for chest congestion and Tylenol. Her symptoms worsened before they got better.
Coughs ‘took over my chest’
“It was hell on Earth. I just cannot explain how severe it was,” Yager said. “Days 11 through 14 were the worst. I documented every single thing. I said, ‘OK, if we are part of a pandemic — and I am a historian — I wanted to document everything.’ So I just wrote down exactly what happened to me and how it progressed. It took me 21 days to get over it and that was just from the time that they told me that I was sick. Essentially, it was more like 27 days.”
Yager said she cried “many nights” due to the severity of her cough. It was so severe that she had to angle herself “just perfectly” or else it would kick in.
“I went into a panic because it was so immediate and wouldn’t let up. It completely took over my chest,” she said. “I had to mentally prepare myself and calm myself down. I almost passed out and my lips were blue at least three different times. I just remember my wife had tears in her eyes. She was trying to keep calm for me, but she was freaked out.
“I was just exhausted because it just took everything out of me. I could barely get up and walk 2 feet before I had to hold on to something because I’d have a cough attack.”
After 28 days, Yager said, she started to feel better.
She said she walked around the block to “build up my stamina again.”
Her sense of taste and smell have been altered as a result of having COVID-19.
“When I smell something, I smell something that may be rubberlike,” Yager said. “It really bothers me because I am very much about senses, so that has been completely altered.”
Teaching in a COVID world
Yager said she keeps track of each day of her life amid the COVID-19 pandemic by keeping a journal of her experiences.
Since returning to school in August, she said, it has been “bizarre” and time has been “sucked away,” but she is able to continue teaching in-person due to the protocols GIPS has implemented.
“GIPS gave us the choice on a survey whether we were willing to be virtual and also in-person — a hybrid teacher — which is what I said I would be,” Yager said. “There was a spot for comments and I wrote, ‘I’m willing to be a hybrid if we have the right protocols in place. I am not coming back if you haven’t thought out how we are doing this with kids.’ If they weren’t going to take it seriously, I was only going virtual. I couldn’t do that to my baby and my family again.”
However, she said, GIPS has taken COVID-19 seriously with its implemented protocols. At Barr, she and her fellow educators have to keep students “an arm’s length apart,” have them use only a specific set of stairs and have them wait until they already are in class to use the restroom.
“We went over stuff for the first week and a half of school; it was a constant harping on kids. You felt like it was militant almost because you really needed to convey that,” Yager said. “The micromanaging is just off the chain now. Kids want to talk with their mask down to their chin. I tell them, ‘I don’t need to see your face.’ I tell them to cover their mouth.”
Yager said COVID-19 also has altered the way she teaches as she is not able to bond as quickly with her students.
“My forte is being able to bond quickly and I realize that is based on facial expressions,” she said. “It is the way that I joke and can control whether you are off task. But it also is the way that I smirk and the way the kids are smirking back. I now cannot tell if they are smirking when they say a joke. With the way you joke around, this (pandemic) is killing it. The effectiveness of a bond is just strenuous because now my ease of being able to bond so fast is not the same.”
‘We have to endure this’
Yager said she hopes to use her own story to teach students — and the community — about the importance of following COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing a face covering and keeping a 6-foot distance from others.
“In general, I always say, ‘We are doing this for each other, not ourselves.’ Wearing a mask is a sacrifice, especially when all of us are over it,” she said. “All I can say is that we have to endure this and we have to think about perseverance. I tell my kids that means that we are going through something hard to get to the end. Eventually, we will see the light, but we are in a dark tunnel right now.”