GILA COUNTY, Ariz. - Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, who taught in the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District for 38 years, passed away from COVID-19 on June 26, and two other teachers with whom she shared a classroom during summer school tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“She was a wonderful teacher, respected by everyone that she worked with. She was one that would just go above and beyond to help anybody,” Jeff Gregorich, superintendent of the school district, said.
Byrd started feeling sick and developed symptoms while teaching virtual K-2 summer school classes with two other teachers, Angela Skillings and Jena Martinez-Inzunza.
Skillings shared that Byrd wasn’t feeling well. “She had a sinus infection the week that we were doing summer school.”
Soon after that, Skillings said Byrd was taken to the hospital. When the school’s staff found out Byrd tested positive for the virus, they were notified and were tested.
Despite following CDC guidelines, Skillings and Martinez-Inzunza both tested positive for COVID-19.
“We were following and doing everything we were supposed to be doing, and we were apart from one another. Didn’t even share pencils, pens, things, nothing,” Martinez-Inzunza said.
About one week after Byrd developed symptoms, Skillings said things took a turn for the worse. “That’s when our faith had to come in,” she said.
Byrd passed away on June 26.
Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd with her husband Jesse
“Kimberley was a dedicated devoted teacher for nearly 40 years, she was also the center of our lives and now because of COVID-19 she was taken from us,” Kimberley’s husband, Jesse Byrd, said.
“She was amazing as a teacher,” Skillings shared. “She was very dedicated to her students.”
The teacher’s death comes as school districts face pressure from the government to re-open classrooms this fall amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the state.
“It’s just not the right time,” Gregorich said. “The teachers are scared. All of them are scared to come back and teach in a classroom of kids.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey delayed the re-opening of any classrooms to students in Arizona until at least August 17. That date could be delayed further, as coronavirus cases continue to spike.
“We would like our message to government and school officials to say is that now is not the time to try and send kids back to a traditional classroom,” Jesse said. “We feel the risks and dangers heavily outweigh the benefits at this time.”
In Arizona, another 4,221 COVID-19 cases were reported on Friday. Known deaths rose to 2,082, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
On Thursday, emergency room visits and inpatient beds hovered near record-high numbers. An alarming 88% of inpatient beds and 89% of ICU beds were in use on Friday.
Currently, the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District is scheduled to reopen virtually on August 17.
The district is purchasing iPads and getting wireless hotspots for students who do not have internet.
Gregorich said that teachers signed a contract, but did not sign up for this risk.“For right now we believe we can offer an effective online live classroom that’s engaging and rigorous as well,” Gregorich said. “Arizona can’t afford to lose Mrs. Byrds, because they teach our future."
This story was reported from Los Angeles.