At least five teachers have died from COVID-19 in the US since the school year began in August.
The teachers, spanning five states, have been identified as AshLee DeMarinis, Tom Slade, Demetria Bannister, Nacoma James, and Teresa Horn.
Several tested positive for COVID-19 before their school years began, meaning they hadn't come in contact with any students.
School districts have used contract tracing to avoid large outbreaks among students or staff members.
At least five teachers have died from COVID-19 in the US since the school year began in August.
Among them is AshLee DeMarinis, a special-education teacher in Potosi, Missouri, whom her sister described as "full of adventure."
"She was scared, especially being in the hospital by herself," DeMarinis' sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel, told Insider.
Even before classes started last month, teachers and their unions have voiced concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment and an inability to social distance. And in the weeks since, COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in districts across the country.
Andrew Crook, the press secretary for the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second-largest teachers union, told Insider that more than 200 of its members — which include teachers, support staff members, and retirees — had died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
At least three of the five teachers who recently died tested positive for COVID-19 before the school year began, meaning they never came in contact with students. Still, the deaths are raising concerns among other educators.
"Every time we see another teacher who has died … these were deaths that were preventable," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Insider. "This is how we prevent COVID transmission: It's a matter of will and resources. It's a matter of having the testing, reducing positivity rates in communities, and having the safeguards in schools."
Weingarten told Insider that schools should require staff and students to wear masks at all times and should have social-distancing guidelines in place. She also said that teachers should be tested regularly and that districts should expand their contact-tracing capabilities.
But districts across the US are handling this school year differently. Some are fully remote, which poses its own challenges, especially for those without access to high-speed internet or electronic devices. Some are returning to schools in person, five days a week, without requiring masks or putting other safeguards in place. The nation is a patchwork of requirements with no national standard.
Alongside DeMarinis, four other teachers — Tom Slade, Demetria Bannister, Tacoma James, and Teresa Horn — have been identified as K-12 educators who have died from COVID-19.
All the teachers left lasting imprints on their communities. Here are their stories.
AshLee DeMarinis, 34, was nervous about returning to in-person classes, especially because of her asthma
DeMarinis, who taught social skills and special education at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Missouri, died on September 6. She had tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks earlier.
DeMarinis had asthma, which put her at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms of COVID-19. She visited a doctor in August for what she thought was an ear infection.
"Later that night she developed a fever and some mild shortness of breath," Heissenbuttel, her sister, told Insider on Facebook Messenger. "The next morning it was much worse. She went back to the doctor and was sent to the hospital because her oxygen saturations [were] low. She was swabbed for COVID at the hospital and found out 2 days later that she was positive."
DeMarinis wasn't present for her school's first day of classes because she had already tested positive for the virus, but she had visited the school weeks earlier while preparing for the year.
Her district's superintendent, Alex McCaul, told Insider that officials used contact tracing to determine that she hadn't come in close contact with anyone else in the district.
Heissenbuttel told Insider that her sister was a "great teacher." She said DeMarinis was always doing things for other people and would stop everything to help someone.
"The kids and staff all loved her. Just recently AshLee had a student [whose] mom wasn't able to afford a birthday for her child," Heissenbuttel told Insider. "My sister went and bought a birthday cake and presents for the child. This was the type of person she was, always doing for others."
Tom Slade posted on Facebook about having pneumonia and COVID-19
Slade, a 53-year-old high-school history teacher in Vancleave, Mississippi, started teaching students in person on August 6.
But after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 at a church meeting, he decided to quarantine, Raina Holmes, the principal of Vancleave High School, told The Associated Press.
His last day of in-person teaching was August 21. He tested positive for the virus days later.
On August 30, Slade posted on Facebook about having pneumonia and COVID-19, the Biloxi Sun Herald reported. He said in the post that he had also had pneumonia in 2012 and 2016.
Slade died on September 6.
"He was a true representation of a Vancleave Bulldog and we will forever miss his wisdom, wittiness, love for all students, and love for his school family," his school said in a statement about his death.
The Jackson County School District had reported a COVID-19 outbreak among students and staff in early August, though it's unclear whether Slade's case was tied to it.
It's also unclear whether the district is conducting contact tracing when outbreaks occur. The district didn't respond to Insider's requests for comment.
John Strycker, the district's superintendent, told the Sun Herald that district administrators met every week to discuss COVID-19 guidelines.
"Every week we realize this is a moving target and it is new and unprecedented," he said.
Demetria Bannister, 28, died 3 days after being diagnosed with COVID-19
Bannister, a third-grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, died on September 7 of complications caused by COVID-19. She had been diagnosed with the virus three days earlier, The State reported.
Bannister's last day at Windsor Elementary was on August 28, before classes began. She had been at the school for a teacher workday and then started teaching virtually on August 31.
"Known as Windsor's Songbird, Ms. Bannister used her musical talents to bring a great deal of joy to our school," Denise Quickel, Windsor Elementary's principal, said in a press release. "For our school's Attendance Matters kickoff in 2019 she wrote a song about the importance of coming to school to the tune of 'Old Town Road.' The song and video were a big hit with our school family.
"Ms. Bannister loved her students and never missed an opportunity to advocate for students and public education."
Richland School District Two said it conducted contact tracing upon learning Bannister had tested positive for COVID-19 and told those who had come in contact with her to quarantine, The State reported.
The district said its custodial provider then cleaned and disinfected the school "with EPA approved virucides and electrostatic disinfecting machines."
"I want to express my sincere condolences to Ms. Bannister's parents, relatives, friends and school family," Baron Davis, the district's superintendent, said in the release. "While gone from us too soon, Ms. Bannister's legacy lives on through the lives of the students she taught in her five years as a dedicated educator."
Nacoma James taught middle school in the same district he attended as a child
James, a 42-year-old middle-school teacher and high-school football coach in Lafayette County, Mississippi, died from COVID-19 in early August.
James had spent the summer coaching football practices, but by the time in-person classes began in the first week of August he had developed COVID-19 symptoms and was quarantining. He died on August 6.
His district's superintendent, Adam Pugh, told Mississippi Today that James hadn't been in contact with students or staff in the week before his death.
Pugh said James was an "excellent educator" who went to school in the same district he was teaching in. Pugh added that he had known James since James was 13 "because he was a student of mine in one of my very first classes."
"He was such a loving person and a brilliant young man," Pugh said. "We're devastated by this. This has been a really rough day."
The Lafayette County School District experienced another COVID-19 outbreak in late August, forcing more than 200 fourth-graders, their teachers, and their families to quarantine, the AP reported.
Teresa Horn, 62, died from COVID-19 on August 28, and 12 others from her district have since tested positive for the virus
Horn, a special-education teacher in Oklahoma's Tahlequah Public Schools, died of a heart attack on August 28 after she tested positive for COVID-19, KTUL reported.
"It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of one of our teachers," the district said in a statement. "Losing a member of your family is never easy and in the current climate, it makes the situation even worse. We extend our sympathy to the family and our staff."
Horn had been a teacher at Tahlequah High School for 26 years.
"She loved to meet people, always had a smile on her face, and left an impact on people," her husband, Danny Horn, who also tested positive for COVID-19, told KTUL.
In the weeks since Horn's death, Tahlequah Public Schools has reported at least 12 COVID-19 cases among students and staff members, and dozens of people have had to quarantine.
School districts should 'double down' on safeguards to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the AFT says
Weingarten told Insider that the deaths should make districts "double down" on safeguards to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. She said staff and students should be physically distancing, cleaning, washing their hands, and wearing masks.
"Testing for detection and tracing for detection are absolutely imperative because we know that there's going to be more," she said.
Ahead of the school year, the American Federation of Teachers released resources on how teachers could protect themselves and their students from the coronavirus.
"There are no magic elixirs to simply reopen. Reopening demands comprehensive, transparent action and forthright communication by federal and state authorities, and will take the dedication, voice and forethought," it said in its suggested plan for reopening schools. "The alignment in every school and workplace of public health, instruction and operations is absolutely imperative."
Research on COVID-19 risk among children is ongoing, even as kids reenter classrooms. Preliminary studies have suggested that children are less likely to get a severe illness but can still easily transmit the disease. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week suggested that children could be "silent spreaders" of the virus, Insider's Gabby Landsverk reported.
Even before students returned to classrooms, there were reports of COVID-19 spreading among staff members In Gwinnett County, Georgia, by early August 260 public-school employees had tested positive or come in contact with someone who had. In Santa Clara, California, at least one school official tested positive for COVID-19 after taking part in an indoor planning meeting.
Science magazine reported in July that more than 20 countries had reopened schools. The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that about half of children worldwide had gone back.
Most countries required masks, urged social distancing, and kept children in small groups. In Israel, which imposed few restrictions, epidemiological surveys by the country's health ministry seen by The Wall Street Journal suggested that reopening schools in May might have led to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
While many large districts have opted for virtual learning this fall, New York City is looking to start in-person learning next week.
Other districts, like Horn's Tahlequah Public Schools, James' Lafayette County School District, and Slade's Jackson County School District, have opened with precautions in place. Many schools require all students and staff members to wear masks, and others have contact-tracing plans should an outbreak happen.
Pugh, of the Lafayette County School District, told Mississippi Today that his goal was to keep people safe.
"In my 30 years in education and the last 12 as a superintendent, I've lost more sleep over keeping kids safe than anything," Pugh said in early August, after James' death. "Does all this have me worried? Absolutely. I want to keep all of our students as safe as I possibly can. This all worries me a great deal."
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