Arizona teacher dies of COVID-19 as 2 colleagues also test positive


An Arizona teacher died and two of her colleagues are recovering after being diagnosed with COVID-19 last month, raising questions about how states across the U.S. will be able to safely reopen classrooms.

Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, who taught first grade in Arizona’s Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District for 38 years, died June 26. The 61-year-old had been team-teaching an online summer course in a classroom shared with two other teachers, Jena Martinez and Angela Skillings. All three women tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Losing Mrs. Byrd in our small rural community was devastating. She was an excellent educator with a huge heart,” Pamela Gonzalez, principal of Leonor Hambly K-8, told CNN. “We find comfort in knowing her story may bring awareness to the importance of keeping our school employees safe and our precious students safe in this pandemic.”


Byrd’s husband, Jessie, told KNXV-TV in Phoenix that his wife had asthma, diabetes and lupus. She was admitted to the hospital June 13 and placed on a ventilator one day later.

“I just had this horrible gut-wrenching feeling just knowing how much of a struggle this was going to be because I knew her lungs were compromised even before this ... fear, just the worst fear that you could feel,” he told CNN. “I knew it was going to be rough on her.”

“We just prayed for a miracle, and we put her in God’s hands and we said either he’s gonna work a miracle in her and save her or he’s gonna take her home,” he added. “She didn’t make it.”

The Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District is in Gila County, about 128 miles northeast of Phoenix. With just three schools and roughly 400 students, it’s considered one of the state’s most close-knit teaching communities.

We believe medical experts should drive opening of our school, not politics -Superintendent Jeff Gregorich, Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District

District staff created an online tribute to Byrd in which she’s described as a “devoted wife, mother, nana, dedicated teacher, respected colleague, woman of faith [and a] loving friend.”

As of last week, Martinez had tested negative for COVID-19 after spending four weeks in quarantine but was still receiving breathing treatments. Skillings, however, was still testing positive after 27 days.

School officials say Byrd, Martinez and Skillings adhered to social distance measures, used hand sanitizer and wore masks and gloves while they worked together.

The news comes as the Trump administration is publicly pushing for U.S. schools, many of which switched to remote learning in March as the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, to reopen for full-time in-person classes this fall.

Over the weekend, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was widely lambasted after suggesting that funding for schools that don’t reopen would be slashed, though she failed to specify under which authority she or President Donald Trump could cut those budgets.

“There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” DeVos told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “We know that other countries around the world have reopened their schools and have done so successfully and safely.”

Meanwhile, Hayden-Winkelman Unified Superintendent Jeff Gregorich told NBC News he’s hopeful officials in other districts will look to his district as an example when considering whether or not to welcome students back to campus this fall.

“We believe medical experts should drive opening of our school, not politics,” said Gregorich, noting that Hayden-Winkelman will be resuming remote classes next month. “Lives will be lost if we open school now. America can’t afford the loss of another Kim.”

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