Most Sunday evenings, I open my laptop to compile a weekly death census.
It’s a routine I began when teachers, paraeducators, custodians, and other school staff were dying in quick succession in the early weeks of the pandemic, mostly in New York City. I did not imagine it would still be necessary more than 18 months after the coronavirus began claiming American lives.
But it is. Every week, there is someone—or a few people or dozens of them—from the K-12 workforce who dies from this awful virus.
First, I read stories about them. Most accounts are far too brief. Some reveal touching, tragic details. Then, out of each story, I extract and type eight pieces of data into an Excel spreadsheet:
- Job title
- Job classification (teacher, school leader, district leader, school support staff, etc.)
- School or district name where the person worked
- City/town and state
- Date of death, and
- Link to a local media article, obituary, or other credible source
It’s a simple list of facts I enter. About Tabitha Blair, a teacher no longer in front of her 4th grade students in Sebastian, Fla. About Principal Roy Mathews, his voice gone from the morning announcements at Bainbridge High School in Georgia. About Norma Reyes, a paraprofessional whose hands-on support for kids learning to read, speak, and write in English at a Florida elementary school is lost.
My colleagues on the visuals team scour the web for photos of each person, and painstakingly upload those along with the data to our memorial gallery, Educators We’ve Lost to the Coronavirus.
It’s a catalog of loss that feels woefully inadequate—because it is.
A name, a job title, a date of death, and a black and white photo do not capture the grief; what might have been.
But it’s important to document what we can, to record the names, and acknowledge the deaths. We won’t stop until the pandemic is declared over. We thought we’d be close to the end by now.
Then, Delta arrived. The pace of death has been breathtaking—more than 50 K-12 school employees in the state of Florida alone since July. I type their names into the spreadsheet.
Virginia Perry. Age unknown. Cafeteria worker. Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary School. Weirsdale, Fla. Date of death: Aug. 25, 2021.
Rhonda Brasher Lehman. 52. Cafeteria worker. Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary School. Weirsdale, Fla. Date of death: Aug. 28, 2021.
Rashida Kimmons. 40. Teacher. S.L. Mason Elementary School. Valdosta, Ga. Date of death: Aug. 19, 2021.
John Croy. 70. Bus driver. Polk County Public Schools. Bartow, Fla. Date of death: August 2021.
Our memorial gallery has 1,045 names now, as of Sept. 1. That’s a big number. A big number that falls short. It doesn’t capture everyone. We err on the side of caution before adding another name to the list. Not everyone has an obituary or a local news article to confirm they died from COVID.
Others, too, are bearing witness to this mounting death toll. School Personnel Lost to Covid, known as @losttocovid on Twitter, keeps a daily record. Their count exceeds 1,600.
Before vaccines, the deaths were excruciating to record. Now, it’s beyond excruciating.
When I read the more-recent stories of those who died, many don’t mention the person’s vaccination status.
But some do. Usually, it is one sentence: “she was not vaccinated,” or “he had planned to get vaccinated later.” Or, in a few accounts, a family member left behind issues a plea: Get the shot. Don’t do what our loved one did.
Those are crushing. These educators could have avoided serious illness. They could have survived. They could still be greeting students at the schoolhouse doors. They could still be serving hot meals in the cafeteria. They could still be teaching our kids.
We will continue to record their names. We will remember them.