Brooklyn High School Principal, 36, Dies from Coronavirus

Corey Kilgannon
Dez-Ann Romain, 36, principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a public high school in New York, died on Monday from complications of the coronavirus. (Brooklyn Democracy Academy via The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Dez-Ann Romain, principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a public high school, always kept her office neat and freshened with new flowers, and kept the school decorated with inspirational quotes.

“She was one of the most innovative school leaders I’ve ever worked with — her students just adored her,” said Courtney Winkfield, a New York City schools official who mentored Romain.

Romain died Monday from complications of the coronavirus — the first known death of a New York City public school staff member from the virus.

As of Tuesday, there were 15,597 confirmed coronavirus cases in New York City, with 192 deaths connected to the disease.

While authorities warn that there will be many more fatalities from the virus, Romain’s struck a chord — the early death of a prominent New Yorker who has touched many people’s lives.

Ronda Phillips, 48, principal at Kappa V High School, which uses the same building as the academy, is also hospitalized, school officials said.

Romain’s death drove home what authorities have been warning all along, that the virus does not just kill the old and medically frail. As of now, only five people under the age of 45 in New York City have died from the virus.

“She was a healthy, vibrant, energetic 36-year-old woman who had one of the toughest jobs anybody could have, and she did it with resilience,” Winkfield said.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent a letter to the academy community Monday night notifying them of Romain’s death.

In a statement, Carranza called Romain’s death “painful for all of us” and offered condolences to the academy community and to Romain’s family.

Romain was in her fourth year leading the academy, a transfer school for students who were challenged by traditional high schools.

School officials said that she last reported to school March 12, after which the school was deep-cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis.

She had begun to feel ill and was hospitalized March 18 for pneumonia, school officials said. A day later, the academy notified its community that there was a self-reported COVID-19 case in the school, officials said.

Mark Treyger, a Brooklyn city councilman who chairs the council’s education committee, called Romain’s death devastating and said Mayor Bill de Blasio had placed students, teachers and the staff at risk by failing to close schools more quickly as the virus began spreading in the city. Treyger also faulted city officials for failing to require principals to inform their communities of positive cases in individual schools.

“By failing to disclose virus cases in schools, they kept families in the dark and left more lives at risk,” Treyger said.

Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, called Treyger’s claim “absolutely false” and said “the health and safety of our students and staff have been the sole driver of every decision made by the mayor and chancellor.”

Miranda Barbot, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said the department was directed to close schools when the city’s health department confirmed a case, “and we immediately did that for the one confirmation we received while school was still in session.”

“The city has been at community transmission for over a week, and it’s impossible to trace the source of exposure,” she said. “But as of March 13, the city’s health department advised that a positive case in the school or workplace environment did not put others at higher risk than did anywhere else in the city.

“Regardless, we have been deep cleaning buildings daily,” she added, “and supporting schools in notifying their communities of self-confirmed cases.”

Colleagues described Romain as an organized administrator who had an incredible rapport with, and concern for, her school’s largely African American student body and for Brownsville, the neighborhood where the school is.

She “just loved being principal,” said Winkfield, a senior strategy and policy adviser at the Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access.

“She looked at every single kid as her personal mission,” she said. “She knew every kid’s backstory, their family members, what was going on with them and how to motivate them.”

Romain secured funding to create a hydroponic gardening lab at the school, and she planned on turning the program into a farmers market for local residents.

She partnered with sports companies to get athletic equipment for her students and was instrumental in helping many students get basketball scholarships to college, Winkfield said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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