As school districts consider how to approach learning this fall with no sign of the coronavirus slowing, the virus has already had devastating consequences in one rural Arizona school district.
Jena Martinez-Inzunza was one of three elementary school teachers at the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District who all tested positive for COVID-19 after teaching virtual summer school lessons together from the same classroom.
Martinez’s colleague and friend, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, who taught in the district for nearly four decades, died.
“She was very dear to me. She’s one of my closest friends,” Martinez told Morning Edition.
“She was a very loving, very faithful person and she was very kind. She always loved watching kids find their way, find their strong points and be able to get them to understand that everyone is different. We all have strengths and weaknesses. And that’s OK. And that was the message and the love that she brought to our lives.”
When teaching summer school classes together from June 8-11, the three teachers: Martinez, Byrd and Angela Skillings, all took precautions and followed CDC guidelines, Martinez says. They kept their distance, wore masks and constantly used hand sanitizer.
Byrd’s death not only leaves a community mourning, it illustrates the risk of in-person schooling. No students were physically present when the three teachers taught their online classes.
But the alternative, online-only instruction, has its own challenges for teachers and students.
Martinez had already been doing online instruction since schools closed in March. It’s “made for very long days,” she says, because of the constant and different types of communication between teachers, parents and students: FaceTime, text, email, phone calls and sending physical learning packets. Not all the students have access to the Internet.
As of now, the Hayden Winkelman district will be going online-only when classes resume in August. The school has been working to help unconnected families get online and provide iPads to students, Martinez says.
It will still be a challenge, but Martinez says “it’s not the right time” for students to be back in the school building, with Arizona being a coronavirus hot spot.
“It’s just going to be worse when we repopulate schools” this fall, she says, if Arizonans don’t become more diligent in stopping the virus’s spread.
NPR’s Krista Kapralos and Taylor Haney produced and edited the audio version of this story.