Teachers had just returned last month to prepare for the fall semester at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Mo., when 34-year-old AshLee DeMarinis started to feel ill.
DeMarinis had been worried about returning to work at the rural middle school, where she was starting her 11th year of teaching. She had asthma, which put her at a higher risk for complications from covid-19 despite her young age.
“She was scared,” her sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel, told The Washington Post.
Three weeks later, DeMarinis died in the hospital after testing positive for the novel coronavirus and suffering from complications caused by the infection.
DeMarinis isn’t the only teacher to die amid the pandemic as children return to schools across the United States. Educators in Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Iowa and Oklahoma have died as the fall semester started in their districts.
It isn’t clear whether any of the teachers were infected at school, and many quarantined to avoid exposing students and other staff members. But their deaths have renewed fears that school campuses will become a breeding ground for the virus, spreading the illness as communities grapple with how to balance the need to educate children with properly addressing the pandemic.
School districts and state officials have struggled to find the right coronavirus precautions. In Georgia, one school district was forced to send hundreds of people home to quarantine after just one day of school prep on campus. Another district in that state ordered 900 children and staff to quarantine after being exposed to the virus during the first week back in class.
DeMarinis was an avid crafter who spent her summer at a lake with her sister and her nieces. When she returned to school on Aug. 10, she was concerned about the pandemic, her sister told The Post, but she got to work readying the classroom for her students who were set to start classes in a few weeks.
“She taught special education, and it was just her calling,” her sister said. “Her students loved her and her colleagues loved her.”
DeMarinis initially thought she had an ear infection when she started to feel sick on Aug. 14. But her condition worsened quickly, and by Aug. 19 she tested positive for coronavirus. She died on Sunday after three weeks on a ventilator at the hospital.
Nationally, at least five other teachers have died since early August.
This week, Demetria “Demi” Bannister, a 28-year-old third-grade teacher in Columbia, S.C., died from complications of the coronavirus, the State reported. On Sunday, Tom Slade, a 53-year-old high school history teacher in Vancleave, Miss., died of the virus, the Sun Herald reported.
Nacoma James, 42, a beloved football coach in Oxford, Miss., died in early August during the first week back on campus for his students. He spent the summer coaching at football practices until he was forced to self-quarantine after developing coronavirus-like symptoms, Mississippi Today reported.
The deaths have disrupted the start of the fall semester for many schools, and left students mourning their favorite instructors and role models.
“It’s like a gut punch really,” one of Slade’s students, Chase Hall, told WLOX. “He was a man I respected. I looked forward to him coming back to the classroom, and then he was gone.”
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Some districts have also been struggling to comply with quarantine requirements as staff and students test positive for the virus. Two days after children returned to classes in Tahlequah, Okla., school district officials confirmed special education teacher Teresa Horn, 62, died on Aug. 28 from a heart attack after testing positive for the coronavirus, KTUL reported.
“It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of one of our teachers,” Tahlequah Public Schools said in a statement. “Losing a member of your family is never easy and in the current climate, it makes the situation even worse.”
Tahlequah Public Schools sent students home for two days of virtual classes following Horn’s death. In a little over a week since, the district has reported at least eight students and staff members have tested positive and dozens have been forced to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus at school.
Even in districts that have committed to virtual classes, keeping kids off-campus is no guarantee the virus won’t spread among staff members.
A week before virtual classes were set to start in Des Moines, a teacher died after testing positive for the virus, sparking additional fears in a district that has been battling with state leaders over a statewide mandate requiring at least 50 percent of classes to involve in-person instruction.
“This death has shook many teachers in the district to our cores and underscores the importance of our district having the authority to keep our students, staff and community safe based on local health conditions,” Josh Brown, president of the Des Moines Education Association, told the Des Moines Register.