Schools that had reopened in five states were forced to close again after students and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
As schools across the nation are being pushed to reopen even as the coronavirus pandemic continues and infection rates remain high in many places, the first reports of teachers and staff dying of virus-related causes are emerging.
In South Carolina, Shirley Bannister, the 57-year-old chair of Midlands Technical College's nursing department in West Columbia, died early Sunday from the coronavirus, just weeks after her daughter, Demetria Bannister, a third-grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School in Columbia, died of it on Sept. 7 at the age of 28.
"My heart is broken. Shirley was like an angel on Earth. Her life mission was caring for others," said Dr. Donald L Rhames, president of Midlands Technical College. "While her death is devastating, her impact is everlasting. The entire MTC family offer her family support and our prayers."
Demetria Bannister, a colleague said, was known as the elementary school's "songbird." "Ms. Bannister used her musical talents to bring a great deal of joy to our school," said Denise Quickel, principal of Windsor Elementary. "Ms. Bannister loved her students and never missed an opportunity to advocate for students and public education."
Shyla Pennington, 41, a teaching aide in Volusia County, Florida, succumbed to the virus on Sept. 19. Compounding the tragedy for the Jones family, her brother Gerald "Jerry" Jones, 51, a longtime paramedic in the same county, died of COVID-19 the next day.
"When it rains it pours," their father, Greg Jones, had posted on Facebook after his children were admitted to the hospital.
Mike Chitwood, sheriff of Volusia County, also issued a statement honoring the "two public servants" who were "both gone too soon."
"My heart breaks for their family. I'm praying they find peace and know that so many of us are wrapping our arms around them," Chitwood wrote. "The human toll of COVID-19 is real, and these are the first responders and front-line workers who risk their own health and safety to keep our society functioning. No one has all the answers to this health crisis, but I pray we are doing enough to protect people like Gerald and Shyla. May their memories be a blessing. I am so grateful for their service to our community."
It's unclear exactly how the Bannisters, Pennington, and Jones contracted the virus, but their deaths in part reveal an alarming pattern of COVID-19 deaths among teachers and their family members.
At least five other teachers throughout the U.S. have died from the coronavirus since schools started reopening in August: AshLee DeMarinis, 34, in Missouri; Tom Slade, 53, in Mississippi; Teresa Horn, 62, in Oklahoma; Nacoma James, 42, in Mississippi; and an unnamed special education teacher in Iowa, according to a Forbes update.
Despite potential risks to students, teachers, and school employees, Donald Trump has been an outspoken proponent of reopening schools. During a press briefing in July, Trump claimed that children are safe to return to school because they don't bear the same risks from the virus as adults do.
"Well, they do say that they don't transmit very easily. And a lot of people are saying they don't transmit, and we're looking at that," Trump said. "Now, they don't catch it easily; they don't bring it home easily. And if they do catch it, they get better fast. We're looking at that fact."
In July, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also made incorrect claims about children and the virus, saying during an appearance on a radio show called "The Conservative Circus: "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves, so we should be in a posture of — the default should be getting back to school kids in person, in the classroom."
Shortly afterwards, Dr. Deborah Birx, leader of the White House coronavirus task force, said the issue of how kids transmit the virus would require more study. "There's still open questions there, and that's why the president concluded with, 'we're studying this very hard,'" she said during an appearance on Fox News.
Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital, told ABC News in response to Trump's and DeVos' claims that he doesn't think there are any experts saying that children "can't continue chains of transmission and can't play a role in community spread."
"Even if kids are half as likely to transmit the virus compared to adults, even in that setting, it's still important because kids do play a role in transmission," Brownstein noted in reference to a 2020 contact tracing study from South Korea, which found that children between 10 and 19 years old can spread the virus at least as effectively as adults. "And once you put kids into their natural school setting, that completely changes things. You have close proximity, poor hygiene, so that might offset their potentially lesser role and transmission."
In August, Trump pushed to reopen all schools even after Birx cautioned against it.
Last month, schools that had reopened in Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Georgia were forced to close again after students and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Cherokee County School District in Georgia closed two of its high schools after COVID-19 cases had forced large numbers of teachers and students into quarantine in August.
As of Monday, the New York Times was reporting that 204,600 people in the United States had died of the coronavirus, and 7,146,200 had been infected.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.