Teacher deaths raise alarms as new school year begins

AshLee DeMarinis is shown in an undated photo provided by her sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel. DeMarinis, a middle school teacher in eastern Missouri's Potosi School District, died Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, after being hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19. DeMarinis became ill last month before kids returned to class, but had been to her classroom preparing for the school year, Heissenbuttel said. (Jennifer Heissenbuttel via AP)
AshLee DeMarinis is shown in an undated photo provided by her sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel. DeMarinis, a middle school teacher in eastern Missouri's Potosi School District, died Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, after being hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19. DeMarinis became ill last month before kids returned to class, but had been to her classroom preparing for the school year, Heissenbuttel said. (Jennifer Heissenbuttel via AP) (Jennifer Heissenbuttel)

O'FALLON, Mo. – O'Teachers in at least three states have died after bouts with the coronavirus since the dawn of the new school year, and a teachers' union leader worries that the return to in-person classes will have a deadly impact across the U.S. if proper precautions aren't taken.

AshLee DeMarinis was just 34 when she died Sunday after three weeks in the hospital. She taught social skills and special education at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Missouri, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis.

A third-grade teacher died Monday in South Carolina, and two other educators died recently in Mississippi. It's unclear how many teachers in the U.S. have become ill with COVID-19 since the new school year began, but Mississippi alone has reported 604 cases among school teachers and staff.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said schools need guidelines such as mandatory face coverings and strict social distancing rules to reopen safely.

“If community spread is too high as it is in Missouri and Mississippi, if you don’t have the infrastructure of testing, and if you don’t have the safeguards that prevent the spread of viruses in the school, we believe that you cannot reopen in person,” Weingarten said.

Johnny Dunlap, a 39-year-old drama and forensics teacher at Dodge City High School in Kansas, said he considered quitting before the district made masks mandatory for teachers and students. Still, his history of bladder cancer and high blood pressure have left him with some angst about being around so many people. Existing health conditions can put people at higher risk for severe illness and death from the virus.

“I’m at a high school with close to 2,000 students so it kind of runs against the advice we have been given for half a year now,” Dunlap said.

The early phase of the pandemic claimed the lives of dozens of teachers. The New York City Department of Education alone lost 31 teachers among 75 employees whose deaths were blamed on the coronavirus.