Kids begged to go to Mrs. Byrd’s classroom to do art projects.
Every year, Mrs. Byrd taught folklórico dance to her first-grade students.
And though she had once retired, Mrs. Byrd loved teaching so much, she couldn’t help but return to the classroom, her husband, Jesse Byrd, said.
Now she’s gone. Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd died June 26 after testing positive for COVID-19.
She taught first grade in the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District in a small eastern Arizona community. Before she tested positive, Byrd and two other teachers taught a summer school class virtually from the same classroom. All three teachers came down with the virus.
Byrd, 61, was admitted to a hospital and put on a ventilator for more than a dozen days, her condition slowly deteriorating, before she died. Now, the community is grieving for a teacher her colleagues say was ingrained in the fabric of their school system and a matriarch her family says was the center of their world.
“It just feels like a bad dream that I can’t wake up from,” Jesse Byrd said. “We’ve just felt so lost without her.”
The teachers who survived also say Byrd’s death is a stark reminder of the risks teachers will face if school reopens too soon.
The news of Byrd’s death comes as President Donald Trump wages a campaign to reopen schools on time, even suggesting federal funding from schools that don’t open could be “cut off.”
“Everything is safety, safety, safety,” said Jena Martinez-Inzunza, a Hayden-Winkelman teacher. “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?”
Three teachers in one classroom. They thought they were being ‘very careful’
Byrd’s district conducts summer school every year. Usually, teachers put together fun science-based lessons for students, said Angela Skillings, one of the three teachers who tested positive for COVID-19.
This year proved to be different: As a pandemic raged, summer school was moved online.
Skillings, Martinez-Inzunza and Byrd taught their summer class together, the students a mix of kindergartners, first- and second-graders.
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The educators decided to teach virtually while together in the same classroom, but took what they thought were extensive measures: They wore masks, they disinfected equipment and kept distance between each other.
“We were very careful,” Skillings said.
They still wanted to bring hands-on activities to the kids. They delivered small care packages to students containing beans, so the children could sprout them in a small plastic bag in the windows of their home.
They simulated pollination by touching hot Cheetos to paper bees. The lessons were a way to bring some of the usual fun of summer school home to kids. The teachers would take turns at the front of the classroom, and spend a few hours together every day planning lessons.
Byrd was the first to become sick, shortly after a camping trip, her husband said — it was just the two of them in a camper. They had been diligent in staying home and isolating during the pandemic, he said.
Byrd had asthma and several other health issues. Her doctor told her that she likely had a sinus infection, but her breathing continued to deteriorate, Jesse Byrd said. Her kids eventually convinced her to go to the hospital. He couldn’t go in with his wife, who called and said she was being admitted for COVID-19.
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“She called me, she could barely talk,” he said. “And she told me that they wanted to intubate her and put her on a ventilator.”
Byrd first improved on a ventilator, but then her condition started to slide downhill, her husband said. When doctors tried to take her off the ventilator, she appeared to have an anxiety attack and struggled. Her condition worsened. Then, she was gone.
“Her body just couldn’t fight anymore,” Jesse Byrd said.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd was ‘exactly what you would want to be as a teacher’
Later, Jesse Byrd and other family members tested positive, too.
Skillings tested positive the same week, as did Martinez-Inzunza.
Skillings said she had a high fever and cough. Though weeks have passed, her tests are still coming back positive. Thursday was the first day she woke up without a cough, she said.
Martinez-Inzunza still has a cough, but is testing negative. In the thick of the virus, she said she was constantly fatigued — even showers were a challenge.
“It was a very dark, scary and very painful time because coronavirus hurts,” she said. “It hurts your chest, it hurts your breathing. It’s terrible.”
Skillings remembers the last time she saw Byrd. At the end of the day teaching, they lingered, in conversation: It was the kind of conversation where they’d say, “OK now I’m leaving,” and then would continue to talk.
Byrd loved teaching. Her classroom was always loud, always filled with laughter and the kids were always learning, Skillings said.
“She was exactly what you would want to be as a teacher because she had the patience, the kindness, the discipline,” she said.
Skillings said she will return to school if administrators decide to reopen, but she hopes they choose to stay closed until COVID-19 cases decline. She doesn’t want anybody else to endure what she went through — or what Byrd went through.
“I think of our students and I know how many times a day they touch each other, how many times a day they’re out of their seats, especially our younger kids and I can see germs spreading quicker than anything,” she said.
She’s trying to stay off social media, because posts that downplay the virus make her mad.
“I know people die from influenza and other things, but this is something that hit hard and it’s hitting us fast. I mean, look at today: 4,000 more cases,” she said.
Jeff Gregorich, the district’s superintendent, said he does not believe schools can bring students back safely as cases rise.
“We’re going to lose a lot of teachers if they bring the kids back again,” he said.
Martinez-Inzunza said other colleagues are still waiting on results from tests they took weeks ago. If testing is taking so long for them, she wonders how schools will be able to trace employees and students with COVID-19 and keep them out of the classroom.
So much of the national conversation feels unfair, she said, when others haven’t experienced what she has.
“It’s so unfair to watch the tantrums being thrown on TV,” she said. “I am brokenhearted. I lost one of my best friends.”
Follow Lily Altavena on Twitter: @LilyAlta.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: These Arizona teachers shared a classroom. COVID-19 killed 1 of them.