Should schools be open? Families of campus staff lost to COVID-19 wrestle with risks, questions

Erick Ortiz slumped in a chair when he came back from Milby High School on Nov. 3. He told his wife that he had been on his feet for five hours, monitoring about 20 students taking the PSAT in his classroom.

Her heart sank at the thought of him closed in a room with so many students.

“I remember telling him, ‘Don’t tell me you walked around. Why didn’t you just stand there?’” Maria Ortiz said. “He said, ‘We have to stand and monitor them.’”

About four days later, Erick Ortiz began feeling sick. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 8, and after a nearly month-long battle in which he was intubated, Ortiz died on Dec. 6. The science teacher was 52.

For dozens of Texas families whose loved ones worked in schools and died of COVID-19 in recent months, the grieving period comes with a barrage of questions: Did the fatal infection happen on-campus? Could school leaders have done more to ensure safety? Were the benefits of bringing nearly 3 million children back on campus worth the potential risk of lives lost?

As with so much about the pandemic, there are few simple or unanimous answers.

On Texas public school pre-K enrollment tumbles 22 percent

Some survivors of the deceased, such as Ortiz’s family, argue that education employees have been put in unnecessarily dangerous positions, through rushed back-to-school policies or lax enforcement of safety protocols.

Others, such as the widow of 57-year-old Goose Creek CISD middle school teacher Kenneth McVay, who died of COVID-19 in mid-December, are comforted by robust health protocols on campuses and the irreplaceable public service provided by educators amid the pandemic. School leaders across the state report that many students in online-only classes are struggling with their academics and mental health, while children in face-to-face classes are performing better.

“In my mind, teachers are front-line personnel, the same way doctors and nurses are,” said Robin Creed McVay, herself a middle school counselor. “I feel the loss of my husband very deeply, but I won’t say we made a bad decision or wrong decision. We are where we thought we needed to be.”

From the outset of the pandemic, the potential public health effects of resuming in-person classes have stirred intense debate among education leaders, school employees and their families.

For some school staff, the prospect of on-campus COVID-19 spread inspires grave concerns, sparking calls to keep instruction online. Many families shared those concerns, evidenced by nearly half of Texas public schoolchildren remaining in virtual classes into at least late October, according to state data.

Several months later, the ultimate impact of reopening campuses on the state’s 800,000-plus school employees remains murky. No government agency tracks the number of COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations among school staff.

Through media reports, obituaries and other sources, the Houston Chronicle identified nearly 40 school employees in Texas whose deaths have been linked to COVID-19. The deceased — administrators, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, paraprofessionals — ranged in age from 35 to 74.

Six worked in the Greater Houston area, including Alvin ISD assistant principal LeRoy Castro, 58; Cleveland ISD teacher Michael Moore, 48; Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teacher’s aide Marie Le, 69; and Spring ISD teacher Joe Diaz, whose age could not be verified.

Kenneth McVay, an eighth-grade math teacher at Goose Creek CISD’s Gentry Junior High, died Dec. 19, 2020, after contracting COVID-19. McVay’s wife of 35 years, Robin, said she suspects her husband was infected while working. Robin McVay Creed said she feels the lost of her husband “very deeply,” but does not believe he made the wrong decision in returning to campus.

The nearly 40 deaths identified by the Chronicle likely is an undercount against the 37,000 confirmed cases of COVID reported by public school districts between early August and the winter break.

Safe in school?

At least some of the deaths likely are not traceable to in-school spread. In November, the family of Mesquite ISD bus driver Clarkster Toure told a Dallas-area television station that it suspects she contracted COVID-19 at church.

However, other families are left to ponder whether their loved ones would be alive if schools remained closed.

Maria Ortiz said the decision to put so many students in a classroom with Ortiz during the PSAT was likely what caused his infection.

“They couldn’t keep distancing at six feet with so many kids,” Maria said. “He told me a couple of times that he felt that some of the kids were sick. They’re coughing, and maybe their parents just give them a couple of Tylenol and go to school because kids are very resilient.”

The family of 64-year-old school bus driver Sandra Robinson, who spent three decades in Beaumont ISD’s transportation department, also believes she picked up COVID-19 while on the job.

Her grandson, Kevin Robinson, advocated for changes to district protocols, such as allowing more employees to work from home if they can.

“One death doesn’t really change a lot,” said Robinson, who was raised by his grandmother for most of his childhood. “It takes a lot of sacrifice for real change to happen. Once it starts affecting more people, once it hits their families and children, the district will take it more seriously, and then the city, then the state and the whole ladder.”

Creed McVay, whose husband worked as a structural engineer before joining the teaching staff at Gentry Junior School in his native Baytown in 2019, also suspects her husband was infected while on campus.

She does not blame local or state education leaders for his death, however. Before he became ill, McVay reported to his wife of 35 years that Gentry Junior staff took common precautions: making kids sanitize their hands at the start and end of school, cleaning desks daily, ordering students to keep their masks on.

When Creed McVay went to pack up her husband’s classroom in early January, before students and staff returned from winter break, she found desks well-spaced and surrounded by plexiglass dividers.

“I felt like they had taken every possible precaution to protect my husband and those students in that room,” Creed McVay said. “And as I glanced around the classrooms when I was in there, it was the same setup everywhere.”

‘Teachers are not disposable’

For now, state and Houston-area education leaders continue to move forward with in-person classes, often with support from medical officials. Local health authorities have reported finding minimal on-campus spread of COVID-19, though that trend could be tested amid a spike in infected students and staff during the past month.

Texas Education Agency leaders have given no indication that they plan to allow public school districts to return to all-online classes. Under current state guidelines, districts must offer in-person classes to all families that want it, with few exceptions.

“While the agency does not track mortality data, all of us who work in education have been saddened by educator deaths from COVID. One teacher death is too many,” TEA officials said in a statement. “Those working both in schools and also in support of schools right now are doing the absolutely essential work of ensuring that a generation of children receive the educations they deserve even in these extraordinarily challenging times.”

Although the leaders of two large Texas districts, Austin and Northside ISDs, are urging families to keep children home from school, no Houston-area superintendents have issued similar calls or pushed state officials to relent on face-to-face classes.

Asked earlier this month about any urgency to shutter schools, Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is “not at that point right now,” citing feedback she has received from city of Houston and Texas Medical Center officials.

“I know there are grave concerns with the positivity rate and the new strand that has reached the city of Houston,” Lathan said. “But I want to make sure everyone is aware that those conversations are ongoing, and they’re not just hit-or-miss conversations.”

If Maria Ortiz had her way, campuses already would be closed. If they have to open, she said, school leaders should make sure everyone is following CDC guidelines by keeping distanced, doing more contact tracing and providing more protection to teachers.

“I am angry that this is happening in many schools. Teachers are not disposable. They have families,” Maria said, her voice breaking. “Families must be protected, as well.”

Isaac Windes of the Beaumont Enterprise contributed to this report.

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