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Teacher Deaths Raise Alarms at Start of New School Year

Teachers in at least three American states have died since the start of the new school year after getting the coronavirus.

AshLee DeMarinis was just 34 years old when she died this month after three weeks in a Missouri hospital. A third-grade teacher died Monday in South Carolina, and two other educators died recently in Mississippi.

It is unclear how many teachers in the U.S. have become ill with COVID-19 since the new school year began. But the state of Mississippi alone has reported 604 cases among school teachers and workers.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. She said schools need guidelines such as required face coverings and strict social distancing rules to reopen safely.


An employee waits to assist a student off a bus as in-person learning resumes with restrictions in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Arizona, U.S., August 17, 2020.

“If community spread is too high, as it is in Missouri and Mississippi, if you don’t have the infrastructure of testing, and if you don’t have the safeguards that prevent the spread of viruses in the school, we believe that you cannot reopen in person,” Weingarten said.

Johnny Dunlap is a 39-year-old teacher at Dodge City High School in Kansas. He said he considered resigning before the district made face coverings required for teachers and students. Still, his history of cancer and high blood pressure make him worried about being around so many people. Existing health conditions can put people at higher risk for severe illness and death from the virus.

“I’m at a high school with close to 2,000 students so it kind of runs against the advice we have been given for half a year now,” Dunlap said.

The early part of the health crisis claimed the lives of many teachers. The New York City Department of Education alone lost 31 teachers.

Across the country, the American Federation of Teachers lists 210 union members who have died. The list includes support workers and retirees as well as teachers.

Start of new school year brings new deaths

The start of the new school year brought with it new deaths.

In Oxford, Mississippi, 42-year-old Nacoma James was a middle school teacher who also helped coach high school football. He died on August 6 during the first week of classes.

He was already self-quarantining when teachers and students returned to the classroom, said Lafayette County School District Superintendent Adam Pugh. James worked with football players during summer workouts, but an investigation found no new cases linked to him, Pugh said.

Another Mississippi teacher, Tom Slade, died on September 6. The history teacher recently wrote on Facebook about his battle with a severe lung infection caused by the coronavirus.

Slade was teaching in-person when the school year started on August 6, Principal Raina Holmes said. He began quarantining after he had contact with someone outside of school who was confirmed to have the virus. His last day of teaching was August 21.

In South Carolina, 28-year-old Demetria “Demi” Bannister died three days after being confirmed to have COVID-19, her school district said in a news release. The district said Bannister was at Windsor Elementary School on August 28 for a teacher work day, before classes began.

‘I thought it would be me, not her’

Back in Missouri, in-person classes started August 24 at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, about 115 kilometers southwest of St. Louis. AshLee DeMarinis was already hospitalized by then. But she had been in the school preparing for the year a couple of weeks earlier, said her sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel.

A school official said contact tracing found DeMarinis had not had close contact with any teachers, students or workers.

DeMarinis had asthma, which can put someone more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. After developing a high body temperature and shortness of breath, she was tested for the coronavirus and soon hospitalized.

It is unclear where and how DeMarinis got the virus.

Heissenbuttel is a nurse who works in a New York area hospital’s intensive care unit. She has avoided the illness that her sister could not.

“I thought it would be me, not her,” Heissenbuttel said.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm John Russell.

Words in This Story

guidelines – n. a rule or instruction that shows or tells how something should be done — usually plural​

infrastructure - n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly

(school) district - n. an area or region containing the schools that a school board is in charge of

quarantine - v. to keep (a person or animal) away from others to prevent a disease from spreading

contact tracing - n. the process of identifying people who may have been physically close to an infected person. ​

asthma - n. a physical condition that makes it difficult for someone to breathe

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