3 Arizona teachers contracted COVID-19 while sharing a summer classroom; 1 died

COVID and education: The debate continues

GILA COUNTY, Ariz. (Gray News) - As the debate over schools reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic continues, two teachers from Arizona, who shared a summer classroom and contracted the virus, along with a colleague who died from it, are warning that reopening could have dangerous consequences.

Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, a 61-year-old teacher from Arizona, died June 26 after fighting coronavirus in the hospital for less than two weeks. She shared a classroom with two other teachers during the summer at the Hayden Winkelman School District in Gila County.

Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, a 61-year-old teacher from Arizona, died June 26 after fighting coronavirus in the hospital for less than two weeks.
Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, a 61-year-old teacher from Arizona, died June 26 after fighting coronavirus in the hospital for less than two weeks. (Source: Jesse Byrd Sr/CNN)

“She was very supportive. She was what I would call a giver: a giver of knowledge, a giver of kindness,” said Jena Martinez, one of the teachers who shared the classroom with Byrd.

School officials say Kimberly Byrd, Martinez and the third teacher who shared the room, Angela Skillings, all wore gloves and masks and used hand sanitizer, but all three contracted COVID-19.

“My main thing is if we can’t stay safe, how are our students going to stay safe?” Skillings said.

Kimberly Byrd had worked in the district for 38 years. She was prone to sinus infections and had asthma, diabetes and lupus. She died just short of her 24th wedding anniversary with husband Jesse Byrd Sr.

“We just prayed for a miracle. We put her in God’s hands, and we said either he’s gonna work a miracle in her and save her or he’s gonna take her home,” Jesse Byrd told CNN. “She didn’t make it... It’s been devastating for us here in our home.”

Jesse Byrd says days after his wife entered the hospital, he, his daughter, son, daughter-in-law, 4-year-old granddaughter and several other relatives contracted COVID-19.

In addition, Martinez and Skillings are still struggling from the virus’ effects with fatigue and coughing.

The situation is a startling example of the risks of returning to school, as the virus resurges across the United States. While the American Academy of Pediatrics supports in-person learning, the American Federation of Teachers says it’s not clear districts can do so safely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released public guidelines for reopening, which would require big changes for most schools.

Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff and students except the youngest. Desks would be distanced 6 feet apart, and group activities would be canceled. Staggered arrival and dismissal times, outdoor classes, and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.

“We simply just don’t have the space, the flexibility, the time, the funding to be able to make that a reality and to be able to put our staff and students’ safety at the forefront of our decisions,” said Stephanie Gounder, principal of a charter school in Houston.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing to have schools reopen in the fall, as part of a broader effort by the administration to continue reopening the economy.

“Kids need to be in school. They need to be learning. They need to be moving ahead. We cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening,” DeVos said.

Last week, Trump and DeVos scoffed at the hybrid approach being considered by many jurisdictions — with students attending on staggered days to ensure social distancing. At the time, Trump threatened to cut funds to schools that don’t fully reopen.

Copyright 2020 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved. CNN and Associated Press contributed to this report.