COVID-19 Infects 3 AZ Teachers As Schools Weigh Reopening Risks

ARIZONA — In a classroom 100 miles west of Phoenix, three teachers did everything they could to protect themselves from the coronavirus: They wore masks, socially distanced and disinfected their equipment in the the room in which they held virtual summer school classes for students ranging from kindergarten to second grade.

But all three teachers would be infected with coronavirus. And for one, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, the virus proved fatal. She died in a hospital on June 26.

Byrd's death, first reported by The Arizona Republic and ABC15, has gained national attention as Arizona and other states grapple with the risks of reopening classrooms to in-person instruction. For teachers, parents and school districts, the question of how and when when to reopen schools is further complicated by President Donald Trump's demand for students to return to classrooms and his threat that schools refusing to do so could be punished with a loss of federal funding.

In the the Hayden-Winkelman school district, where Byrd had taught since 1982, the death of a beloved teacher has framed a national debate in sharply local terms.

"We're a close-knit community. Ms. Byrd was a beautiful person," said Pam Gonzalez, principal of Leonor Hambly Elementary School, in an interview Monday with CNN.

"It has sparked concern in our teaching and education staff for how things will look in the fall when we move forward after this, to keep ourselves and our students safe," she said.

The start of Arizona's school year is already delayed to Aug. 17 under an executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey, who announced the delay in June as part of a "pause" to the state's reopening plans. School districts across the state have announced plans to continue remote learning come fall, while others offer "hybrid" instruction that includes some in-person or on-campus learning when the new school year starts.

But the prospect of facing a classroom filled with children is worrying teachers. On Tuesday, Arizona reported more than 4,000 new cases and 970 coronavirus patients in ICU beds, a new record for the state.

In response, a school board members and medical professionals gathered outside the Capitol on Monday before delivering a petition urging Ducey to order all school buildings and classrooms to be closed until at least Oct. 1. On Wednesday, groups of teachers plan to stage "motor marches" through The Valley using caravans of painted vehicles to advocate a delay to returning Arizona students and teachers to in-person instruction.

"It’s not that we don’t want to do our jobs. We want to do our jobs safely, and that’s the message we want to get across with these car parades," Kelley Fisher, a march organizer and kindergarten teacher, told KJZZ News.

Teachers in Tucson are planning a similar motor march the same day.

The danger isn't hypothetical to Hayden-Winkelman teachers Angela Skillings and Jena Martinez-Inzunza, who are still recovering from the virus that killed their colleague Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd. In a CNN interview Monday, nearly a month after learning she'd contracted coronavirus, Skillings said that her subsequent tests are still coming back positive.

"If we can't stay safe," she said, "how can students stay safe?"

That same day, a reporter brought up Byrd's death at a news conference with President Donald Trump.

"What do you tell parents, who look at this, who look at Arizona where a school teacher recently died teaching summer school, parents who are worried about the safety of their children in public schools?" the reporter asked.

Trump did not address Byrd's death directly. He replied:

"Schools should be opened. Schools should be opened. Those kids want to go to school. You're losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed."

This article originally appeared on the Across Arizona Patch