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They wore masks and gloves, kept their distance, and used hand sanitizer. But that didn’t protect three Arizona teachers who shared a classroom from COVID-19, and now one of them is dead.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, 61, died on June 25, less than two weeks after being admitted to a hospital in Eastern Arizona. Her two colleagues survived the virus and are now warning that reopening schools in the fall will lead to more infections and deaths.
“We can fix a child's education if they miss some time, but we cannot bring the child back if we lose them. There’s nothing we can do if they pass away or if a family member or staff member does,” Angela Skillings, one of the teachers who taught summer school with Byrd, told BuzzFeed News.
Skillings, Byrd, and Jena Martinez contracted COVID-19 after working as a team in the same classroom offering virtual lessons to students in the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District. They were only together four days before Byrd, a beloved teacher with more than 35 years experience, got sick. Byrd had asthma, diabetes, and lupus. She was admitted to the hospital on June 13 and placed on a ventilator the next day.
Skillings said Byrd taught her son for second and third grade and was a mentor to her and other teachers.
“She always made sure the kids had what they needed, not just academically but even at home,” Skillings said. “If a kid didn't have enough food or they didn't have clothes, she always found a way [to ensure] that they had something to take home with them.”
“Kim was a superstar teacher,” Jeff Gregorich, superintendent of the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District, told BuzzFeed News. “She was the foundation of our primary school and was well-respected by her peers. All the parents loved her and of course the kids did too.”
Roughly eight years ago, Byrd retired after having taught for 30 years. But after a few months she was back in the classroom, according to Gregorich.
“She was really happy and she just enjoyed what she did and had the passion for it. She had such a big heart and there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for a student or a family.”
Gregorich and Skillings described Byrd as a deeply religious person who loved fishing, camping, and hunting with her family. Her husband, Jesse Byrd Sr., also caught COVID-19, as did their son, daughter, 4-year-old granddaughter, and other relatives, according to CNN.
"It just feels like a bad dream that I can't wake up from," Jesse Byrd told the Arizona Republic. "We've just felt so lost without her."
Skillings said she, Byrd, and Martinez followed and in some ways exceeded CDC guidelines for preventing transmission of the virus. They decided to teach summer school to help develop their virtual teaching skills. Even after they contracted COVID-19, Skillings and Martinez continued offering lessons from their homes.
“We weren't going to leave the kids hanging, so we finished summer school sick from home,” she said.
More than two weeks after getting sick, Skillings is still fighting off a cough. Her most recent COVID-19 test came back positive, so she plans to get tested again next week. Skillings said she’s talking about what happened as a way to memorialize Byrd, and to raise awareness about the dangers of fully reopening schools.
“It spread between the three of us in four days. Imagine what's going to happen with more people in the classroom,” she said.
Gregorich said he hopes school districts in Arizona and elsewhere will be allowed to choose how to offer education in the fall, rather than be forced to fully reopen.
“I feel like teachers sign a contract to teach," he said. "They don't sign a contract for that type of risk environment.”