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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's easy to think of the pandemic as a story of cities like Los Angeles where the schools will be closed. It's also the story of rural communities like Winkelman, Ariz. Jena Martinez-Inzunza grew up there.
JENA MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: We're a very small mining community town.
INSKEEP: What kind of mining is it?
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: Copper mining.
INSKEEP: And is this the kind of beautiful, stark landscape I would imagine in much of Arizona?
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: Cactus blooming, yeah. It's your typical desert landscape with Salados and ocotillos and palo verdes. It's beautiful. It's beautiful to me.
INSKEEP: Martinez teaches first grade. When the school district closed in March, she struggled to teach remotely in a community where some families aren't on the Internet. In June, the teachers returned to school for just a few hours. They were preparing materials for summer school. Martinez worked in a room with two other teachers. She says they all kept their distance. But all three contracted coronavirus and one, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, died.
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: It's hard to listen to being told, oh, it's not that hard.
INSKEEP: To open schools, you mean. Not that hard is what you're...
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: Open schools, you know, things like that. It's just - there's a lot to say about those comments. And it's devastating. You know, the day that we do go back to school, kids are going to look for Ms. Byrd that do not understand that she's gone. Ms. Byrd's not going to be there. So it's not going to be black-and-white, we're going straight in and we're going to have scheduling and classroom management. And it's not going to be that. The loss of Ms. Byrd in our school impacted everyone.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about opening schools this fall. But I want to ask first what Kimberley Byrd was like, your colleague.
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: Oh, I could talk to you about her all day. She was very dear to me. She's one of my closest friends. But 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.
INSKEEP: Does it feel like the right choice to you to not come back in person when school resumes?
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: At this moment in time, considering I am a teacher in Arizona and we are a hotspot, our numbers are rising, that's an easy answer for me. It's not the right time.
INSKEEP: If it gets to be September, October, November and the numbers look a little better and the authorities say, OK, let's try in-person school now, will you be going?
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: If we have flattened our curve, if we have lowered our numbers because Arizonans will become more diligent and understand that this is real, this is happening and the danger that comes with repopulating schools in Arizona - if everybody does their part, we can help our health care workers. We can help the nurses who are on the front line. We can help the hospitals. But when they're filling up and we are not taking this seriously, we are not helping them. And if we're not going to help them, it's just going to be worse when we repopulate schools.
INSKEEP: Jena Martinez-Inzunza has been a teacher for 25 years, mostly at Hayden Winkelman Unified School District in Arizona. Thank you very much.
MARTINEZ-INZUNZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.