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Award-winning Rockford arts educator leaves classroom due to Long-COVID symptoms

Rockford Area Arts Council awards

It’s been a hard few years for teachers during the pandemic. Roughly 1 out of every 5 educators say they’ve experienced Long COVID symptoms.

This spring, Judith Meyer smiled for the cameras and raised a plaque. She had just been named 2023 Arts Educator of the Year by the Rockford Area Arts Council.

After 40 years teaching art at colleges and universities across the country, this felt like a true high point in her career. But unfortunately, it was bittersweet.

That’s because just a few months earlier she had to say goodbye to her beloved students at Rock Valley College. By that point, Meyer’s COVID complications had gotten worse after her initial infection in January 2022 during the Omicron wave. Although COVID is typically known as a respiratory disease, it can also damage the heart -- which was the case with Judith.

“I just said to myself, I really need to stay home and take care of myself. But then when I was hospitalized with these heart issues, I realized that I just couldn't go back,” she said. “I couldn't have substitutes just showing up and my students not knowing what's going on. I really felt like I owed it to them to let them have, at least the rest of the semester, continuity.”

She was also experiencing brain fog, making long class lectures more challenging, although Meyer says her students were very understanding.

“It's still scary if I can't remember things,” said Meyer. “But then, later on, I remember it, but it's a little late because class is over.”

Like many “long-haulers,” Meyer has a new normal. She’s in pain every day. She has to plan out when she paints in her studio. Her husband is able to help her carry equipment.

COVID hasn’t influenced what she wants to paint, though. She still loves the “magical realism” style where more mundane life is made mystical and vibrant. She’s been painting a piece called “Terraforming on Mars” that imagines celestial life on another planet. Another series called “Paradise Places in the North Country” reminds viewers of life on Earth under the threat of climate change.

Meyer also recently contributed to the “Rockford Famous” self-portrait exhibit with the Rockford Area Arts Council.

She’s happy she’ll get to work in her studio more, but she misses her students deeply. Meyer worked with students with nearly no art experience all the way up to graduate-level students.

She says it was always a fulfilling challenge to know when to push students without losing their trust, to get new students to see they’re capable of creating something great and experienced students to seek creativity out of their comfort zone.

“I think about some of my students that probably felt misunderstood their whole lives. They didn't talk very much in the beginning of the classes and kept to themselves," she said. "But then, when they realized their ideas were being listened to, they had a way of being able to be serious and produce work that they couldn't believe that they could actually do. That's what sticks with me."

Meyer traveled to Europe and Latin America with her art students -- which she says was a life-changing cultural as well as artistic education for her and her students. Those trips and her time in the classroom also forged friendships.

“I still have relationships with students that I taught in Ohio, and that was 20 years ago. I'm still in touch with a lot of my students. Some of my best friends now are my former students,” said Meyer. “It was a privilege that they would trust their ideas with me, and that they would trust me if they needed some help and come to me when they're excited about something.”

Right now, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to teach again. She has the energy for smaller workshops, but it doesn’t quite feel the same as being in the same studio with students for months on end. It is disappointing, but the Arts Council award did give her a little bit of closure -- a high note to bookend this part of her career.

“I really appreciated that so much. And I appreciate my nominees in the Arts Council, and it was just terrific,” said Meyer. “When I think about it, I always smile, inside and out.”

She just wishes she could keep doing what earned her that award -- a career that she’d grown to love.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.