GILA COUNTY, AZ — Family members of Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, who taught in the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District for more than 30 years, say she passed away from COVID-19 on June 26.
District Superintendent Jeff Gregorich says Byrd was team-teaching an online summer school course in the same room with two other teachers, and despite following all CDC guidelines for social distancing, sanitizing and wearing masks and gloves, all three of the teachers tested positive for COVID-19.
"Kim was a master teacher and a wonderful and loving person. She can never be replaced. Our school staff and community is still grieving," said Gregorich. "We are a small district and she has taught members of almost everyone’s family over her 38 years of teaching."
It’s a tight-knit teaching community in Gila County, with just three schools, and about 400 students.
“She loved it. She was good at it too,” said her son Luke Byrd.
Byrd's family says they do not know for certain where she contracted the virus but said several other family members also tested positive and are currently in quarantine. Her son says she also had a history of lung issues and asthma, making her particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“She was very concerned you know but she was 100% on board with whatever needed to be done,” said her husband, Jessie. “She had ordered face shields, masks. She was making masks because she loved to sew.”
In just a week of teaching together, the three teachers went through half of a large bottle of hand sanitizer. Kimberley started to feel sick. She was admitted to the hospital on June 13. She tested positive for COVID-19. She died on June 26.
Two days after she entered the hospital, two other teachers also tested positive for COVID-19.
“Fatigue set in. Cough set in. Fever set in. By the weekend it was in full swing and I was very ill,” said Jena Martinez, another veteran teacher. Martinez spent four weeks in quarantine. She is still getting breathing treatments, and just tested negative for the first time this week.
Another teacher, Angela Skilling, was on day 27 battling COVID-19 on Wednesday. She is still testing positive. “We have little kids,” she said. “How many people did I come in contact with?”
Her fellow educators say they’re telling Byrd’s story because school districts face increasing pressure from the White House to re-open classrooms on schedule. Educators say it’s too soon, and the death of a veteran teacher should serve as a cautionary tale.
“All three teachers religiously followed the CDC social distancing, wore masks, gloves, and were continuously disinfecting throughout each session,” Gregorich said. “Unfortunately, these protective CDC strategies did not keep any of them safe.”
Governor Ducey has delayed the re-opening of any classroom in Arizona until at least August 17. The governor has said that’s an “aspirational” date and could be extended if new closures and mask mandates fail to bring the number of infections down.
A tribute on the district's Facebook page says Byrd was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and a dedicated teacher who was passionate, caring, supportive and vibrant.