Arizona Teacher Dies of COVID-19 After Sharing Classroom with Colleagues Who Also Tested Positive
Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy Devos said on Sunday that it should be "the rule" for students to return to schools in the fall
Three Arizona teachers who shared a classroom for a summer school course all contracted coronavirus last month. One of them has died, according to several reports.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd died on June 26, just under two weeks after she was hospitalized due to coronavirus complications. The other two teachers — Jena Martinez-Inzunza and Angela Skillings — are still battling the virus, according to CNN.
Byrd, 61, taught first grade in the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District in eastern Arizona, where she had worked for the last 38 years. School officials say all three teachers wore masks and gloves, used hand sanitizer and socially distanced, but still contracted the virus.
"Losing Mrs. Byrd in our small rural community was devastating. She was an excellent educator with a huge heart," Pamela Gonzalez, principal of Leonor Hambly K8, told CNN. "We find comfort in knowing her story may bring awareness to the importance of keeping our school employees safe and our precious students safe in this pandemic."
Byrd was admitted to the hospital on June 13 and placed on a ventilator soon after, her husband Jesse Byrd said. "I just had this horrible gut-wrenching feeling just knowing how much of a struggle this was going to be because I knew her lungs were compromised even before this ... fear, just the worst fear that you could feel," Jesse told CNN, explaining that his wife was prone to sinus infections, and also had asthma, diabetes and lupus. "I knew it was going to be rough on her."
"We just prayed for a miracle, and 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 added. "She didn't make it ... It's been devastating for us here in our home."
Days after his wife was hospitalized, Jesse, his daughter, son, daughter-in-law, 4-year-old granddaughter and several other relatives also tested positive for COVID-19.
Byrd's death is now serving as a warning for communities across the country as select government officials push to reopen schools in the fall.
"Many grandparents, wind up being caretakers to kids when they get off school — mom and dad are working and a lot of grandparents are even raising their grandchildren. So, many of these grandparents fall into this high-risk category of being older with more health issues," Jesse told CNN. "They have no business opening the schools to try and get back to a traditional classroom ... let's get through this pandemic first before we try to get back to normal."
"Everything is safety, safety, safety," Martinez-Inzunza, one of the other two Hayden-Winkelman teachers with COVID-19 told The Arizona Republic. "What a contradiction to be threatened by the president. What a contradiction to be bullied: 'Do this, or I'm going to pull funding.' What a contradiction to say our kids' lives matter … Why would you push to open schools?"
Arne Duncan, the secretary of education under former President Barack Obama reassured the public during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, saying that, "Trump has no legal authority to withhold funds. Threatening people, bullying them, lying doesn’t stop the virus from spreading," according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, current Education Secretary Betsy Devos said it should be "the rule" for students to return to schools in the fall.
"It is a matter of paying attention to good hygiene," Devos told CNN's Dana Bash during an appearance on State of the Union, adding that schools should focus on "following the guidelines about making sure we're washing hands, wearing masks when appropriate, staying apart at a bit of distance socially, and doing the things that are common sense approaches to ensuring that kids can go back to the classroom and go back to learning."
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.