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School & District Management Obituary

‘Bright Star’ Principal, 36, Dies From Coronavirus

By Denisa R. Superville — March 24, 2020 3 min read
Dez-Ann Romain was the principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy in New York, a school for students who had fallen behind in earning high school credits. She’s believed to be one of the first K-12 educators to die from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
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A Brooklyn principal who led a school for students who had dropped out or are in danger of not graduating on time has become one of the first K-12 educators in the United States to die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Dez-Ann Romain, 36, was the principal of the 190-student Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood.

Romain’s death, which was announced Monday by the New York City union that represents principals, sent shockwaves through the city, in part because Romain was so young. New York City—which has become the largest epicenter of the virus in the U.S.—had closed schools to students on March 16, and teachers and principals continued to come to work for a few days after the closure. On Tuesday, a second Brooklyn principal whose school shared a campus with Romain’s school, was hospitalized with pneumonia, possibly stemming from coronavirus, the New York Post reported.

Educators Are Vulnerable

Several educators in the country have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including a principal in Loudoun County, Va. Last week, a substitute teacher who worked in California’s Sacramento Unified school district died from the virus. But Romain is thought to be the first full-time, front-line educator in K-12 to die from the disease.

“I am sorry to say, I think there will be a lot more educators falling ill,” said Ernest Logan, the president of the American Federation of School Administrators, the national union that represents principals, assistant principals, and other administrators across the country.

Though he did not know Romain personally, the news was difficult for Logan, a former New York City principal who worked in the Brownsville neighborhood.

It “takes a special person” to commit to leading a school that offers a second chance to students who have missed out on educational opportunities-- often through no fault of their own, Logan said.

“We know one thing, they have to be extremely compassionate and caring, and above all, flexible. Stern but flexible,” he said. “That really requires additional strength,”

“You have to have it in your heart that these students can succeed,” he said. “And you have to have it in your heart that you would do anything to help them succeed when you run those schools. You have to live it; you have to truly live it.”

“Every job as a principal is a tough one, and there are some places where it’s tougher than others,” he added.

Principal Was a Problem Solver

Brooklyn’s Democracy Academy serves older students who are behind in credits and those who’ve dropped out. The school is “committed to providing an interesting, challenging, educational program that helps students overcome obstacles and attain their goals,” according to its website.

The school helps students graduate with a high school diploma, build life skills and explore their interests, according to the website.

Photos on the school’s Instagram account show students enjoying the mundane activities of high school life—college tours, Valentine’s day celebrations, Career Day, and prom. The school also has a hydroponics farm, where students grow vegetables as part of an urban farming program.

“She was really a bright star,” Logan said of Romain. “She had this passion.”

Courtney Winkfield, who coached Romain when she was an assistant principal at the school, told Chalkbeat that Romain took time to speak to every student she met in the hallway and that she saw her school as part of the larger Brownsville community.

“She gave her entire self to that community, and it did not matter how incredibly complex a problem was, she was always rolling her sleeves up to do whatever she could to solve it,” Winkfield told the news outlet.

New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement that the city’s education department would help the community through the loss.

“This is painful for all of us, and I extend my deepest condolences to the Brooklyn Democracy Academy community, and the family of Principal Romain,” Carranza said. “We’re all experiencing a deep sense of confusion, uncertainty and sadness and it’s more important than ever to provide support to one another. We’ll be there for the students and staff through whatever means necessary during this impossibly difficult time.”

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