A beloved longtime Arizona elementary school teacher died of coronavirus after sharing a summer classroom with two other teachers who also fell ill with the disease, and now those close to her are warning of the risks of sending teachers and children back to school too quickly.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, Jena Martinez-Inzunza and Angela Skillings were teaching Hayden Winkelman Unified School District's virtual summer school to kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students from the same classroom.
Lopez Byrd got sick in early June but was told she had a sinus infection, which was not odd for her, Lopez Byrd's son, Luke, told NBC News. She kept working, but she also kept feeling worse and was finally encouraged by her daughter to go to the hospital.
On June 13, Lopez Byrd tested positive for COVID-19. The next day she was put on a ventilator. And on June 26, she died.
Both Martinez-Inzunza and Skillings also tested positive for the disease, Luke Byrd said, adding that "they’re making a recovery, but it’s still difficult for them."
Jeff Gregorich, the superintendent of Hayden Winkelman Unified School District in Gila County, about 100 miles southeast of Phoenix, confirmed to NBC News that Martinez-Inzunza and Skillings also had fallen ill.
"All three were working together to learn how to teach online," Gregorich said. "They took extra precautions because Jena is a cancer survivor and has a compromised immune system. They followed the CDC guidelines and more."
Byrd echoed that his mother and the two other teachers were extra-careful in the classroom. "They were doing whatever they could to stay safe. They were wearing masks, gloves, using hand sanitizer constantly" partially because his mom was 63 and suffered from asthma, lupus and diabetes.
"Those were the reasons why we were really worried about her getting this virus because we knew, with those other health issues, if she got it, it would have just destroyed her," Byrd said. "And it did. We were right."
Other family members, including Lopez Byrd's husband, Jesse; Luke, 23; and Lopez Byrd's two other adult children also tested positive for COVID-19.
Byrd said he doesn't know if his mother got coronavirus in the classroom or brought it to the classroom. "That’s really hard for us to talk about just cause like I know personally, me and my brother and my sister, we try not to think about that because what if one of us gave it to her? That’s too hard to think about," he said
A tribute to Lopez Byrd from the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District staff said she was a "Devoted wife, mother, nana, dedicated teacher, respected colleague, woman of Faith, loving friend."
She was "passionate, caring, supportive, gracious, inspirational, helpful, vibrant, determined & kind," the tribute said. "You were always there when we needed you for advice, comfort and guidance! You will forever be with us in our hearts! we love you - rest in peace - we will miss you!"
Lopez Byrd had taught with the district — initially second and third grade, and later first grade — for 38 years.
"She sacrificed so much for her school, for her kids — she really had a passion for teaching," Byrd said of his mother. "It’s what she loved to do."
"The way she worked with the kids, understood them, could talk to them, help them grasp a concept," he added. "It was magic."
Byrd was inspired by his mother to pursue a teaching career and spent the last year working with her as an aide in the classroom.
As much as he loves to teach, just like his mom, Byrd does not think teachers and students should be returning to school at the end of summer break.
"I don’t think it’s safe. I think it is reckless and dangerous because a lot of the teachers here in Arizona are older, and that’s who this disease targets," Byrd said.
"It's not fair to the teachers, it's not fair to the students who will take it home to their parents," Byrd added. "We can hold off on bringing kids back into the schools. We can do that. It’s not worth risking people’s lives."
President Donald Trump and his administration have pressed recently for schools to fully reopen, with the president asserting that Democrats want schools to stay closed to hurt his re-election chances. He has also threatened to withhold money from districts that don't reopen in the fall. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sunday defended the Trump administration's aggressive push to reopen schools.
Gregorich said Hayden Winkelman Unified School District schools would be opening for online classes only in August. The district will be reevaluating its opening each quarter.
"Right now is not the right time to open schools in the middle of pandemic. We believe medical experts should drive opening of our school, not politics," Gregorich said. "Lives will be lost if we open school now. America can’t afford the loss of another Kim."