A beloved Arizona elementary school teacher died of coronavirus after sharing a summer class with two other teachers who also fell ill with the disease, and now people close to her are warning about the risks of sending teachers and children to school too fast.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, Jena Martinez-Inzunza and Angela Skillings were teaching the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District virtual summer school to students in kindergarten, first and second grade in the same classroom.
López Byrd became ill in early June, but was told she had a sinus infection, which was not unusual for her, López Byrd’s son Luke told NBC News. She was still working, but she also felt worse and finally her daughter encouraged her to go to the hospital.
On June 13, López Byrd tested positive for COVID-19. The next day they put her on a fan. And on June 26, she died.
Both Martinez-Inzunza and Skillings also tested positive for the disease, said Luke Byrd, adding that “they are recovering, but it is still difficult for them.”
Jeff Gregorich, the superintendent of Hayden Winkelman Unified School District in Gila County, about 100 miles southeast of Phoenix, confirmed to NBC News that Martinez-Inzunza and Skillings had also become ill.
“The three of them were working together to learn how to teach online,” said Gregorich. “They took extra precautions because Jena is a cancer survivor and has a compromised immune system. They followed the CDC guidelines and more.”
Byrd echoed that his mother and the other two teachers were very careful in the classroom. “They did everything they could to keep themselves safe. They wore masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers constantly” in part because their mother was 63 years old and suffered from asthma, lupus and diabetes.
“Those were the reasons we were really concerned that she would spread this virus because we knew that, with those other health problems, if she had it, it would simply have destroyed her,” Byrd said. “And so it was. We were right.”
Other family members, including Lopez Byrd’s husband Jesse; Lucas, 23; and López Byrd’s other two adult children also tested positive for COVID-19.
Byrd said he doesn’t know if his mother contracted coronavirus in the classroom or if he brought it into the classroom. “That is really difficult for us to talk to just because, as I personally know, me and my brother and sister, we try not to think about it because what would happen if one of us gave it to them? That is too difficult to think about.” he said
A tribute to Lopez Byrd from Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District staff said she was a “devoted wife, mother, babysitter, dedicated teacher, respected colleague, woman of faith, loving friend.”
She was “passionate, caring, caring, kind, inspiring, helpful, vibrant, determined and kind,” said the tribute. “You were always there when we needed you for advice, comfort and guidance! You will always be with us in our hearts! We love you, rest in peace, we will miss you!”
López Byrd had taught with the district, initially second and third grade, and then first grade, for 38 years.
“She sacrificed so much for her school, for her children; she really had a passion for teaching,” Byrd said of his mother. “It is what she liked to do.”
“The way I worked with children, I understood them, I could talk to them, help them understand a concept,” he added. “It was magical.”
Byrd was inspired by his mother to pursue a teaching career and spent the past year working with her as a classroom aide.
As much as he enjoys teaching, like his mother, Byrd does not believe that teachers and students should return to school at the end of summer vacation.
“I don’t think it’s safe. I think it’s reckless and dangerous because many of the teachers here in Arizona are older, and that’s what this disease is targeting,” Byrd said.
“It is not fair to the teachers, it is not fair to the students who will take it to their parents,” added Byrd. “We can wait for the children to go back to school. We can do that. It is not worth risking people’s lives.”
President Donald Trump and his administration have recently lobbied for schools to reopen entirely, and the president claims that Democrats want schools to remain closed to harm their chances for reelection. It has also threatened to withhold money from districts that do not reopen in the fall. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended on Sunday the aggressive push by the Trump administration to reopen schools.
Gregorich said Hayden Winkelman Unified School District schools would open their online classes only in August. The district will re-evaluate its opening each quarter.
“Right now is not the right time to open schools in the midst of a pandemic. We believe that medical experts should push for the opening of our school, not politics,” said Gregorich. “Lives will be lost if we open school now. The United States cannot afford the loss of another Kim.”