From teacher extraordinaire Kim Byrd comes a posthumous lesson for President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and anyone else who is pushing to reopen the schools where COVID-19 is raging.
As a 61-year-old with diabetes and lupus, Kim assiduously observed all the CDC safety recommendations both at home and in the school room from which she and two colleagues taught a remote summer session for kids at home.
The other two teachers, Jena Martinez and Angela Skillings, were equally cautious. The three wore masks and gloves, maintained social distance, and went through half of a large bottle of hand sanitizer in just a few days.
But all three of them contracted COVID-19.
Kim was the first to experience symptoms. She initially had what her doctor took to be just a sinus infection in early June. Her doctor prescribed antibiotics, but her condition worsened.
“Gradually through the week, more sick and more sick, more trouble breathing, more trouble breathing,” her husband, 51-year-old Jesse Byrd, told The Daily Beast.
On June 13, Jesse took her to an emergency room. She was given a COVID-19 test whose results would take days, but she was admitted immediately.
“The doctor told me right away, ‘I don’t have proof, but I am almost certain she’s got COVID-19,’” Jesse recalled,
The two other teachers on her team were tested at the school where they had been so careful. The results for all three teachers were positive.
Her colleagues were able to recover at home but Byrd was placed on a respirator. She first had the opportunity to speak with Jesse
“That we loved each other,” he recalled. “She was very scared. At the time, she could barely talk because she was very short of breath.”
Via texts, she asked her husband to check on the rest of the family.
“She was always thinking of others,” Jesse said.
Jesse’s final text message echoed what she would always tell him and the kids when they were leaving the house.
“Put your armor on,” he now told her as she had so often told them.
The reference was to the biblical “armor of God” the faithful don to ward off evil.
“I do,” she now said. “Put yours on.”
During the first of her 13 days on the respirator, Kim seemed to improve and it appeared maybe she was warding off the disease. But the doctor warned that COVID-19 victims too often take a bad turn.
“That is exactly what happened,” Jesse said.
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In the midst of it, Jesse himself fell ill and was hospitalized. He was able to struggle through without being intubated. The day before he was discharged, he was informed that his wife of 24 years had died.
“The virus was just too much for her,” Jesse said.
Over the days that followed, he was contacted by a seemingly endless procession of people whose lives had been touched by Kim during four decades of teaching.
“So many of them,” said her 23-year-old son, Luke. “I couldn’t even give you a number.”
She had actually started out wanting to be a doctor, but she worried she would not be able to handle the trauma that doctors encounter. She decided to follow her mother in becoming a school teacher.
Where her mother had taught in their small Arizona hometown of Superior, Kim taught in the small town of Hayden 30 minutes away. She knew immediately that she had found her calling.
Her life was upended in 1993, when her first husband was killed in a car crash. She had a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
She then met Jesse and they were married in 1996. He had two young children from a previous marriage. He and Kim had another child together.
Kim kept teaching third grade for many years. She then switched to first. Jesse recalled, “She told me it is probably more critical year then even third grade because that’s when the kids learn to read.”
He figured she would have been happy teaching whatever the grade.
“I think she just loved kids,” he said.
Luke recalled that Kim would go into hyperdrive at the approach of a new school year.
“You’d see her going around 100 miles per hour, getting everything perfect for the kids,” Luke said. “Everyone just loved her. They knew how much she cared about those kids. She was one of the best teachers around. It’s because she had that passion for it.”
Outside of school, she taught baile folklórico, Mexican folkloric dance. Her students would then perform in festivals, celebrating her culture with the spirit that was at her core.
“She was full of life,” Jesse said. “She was just so full of life.”
Kim continued her own education and got a master’s degree. She took an administrative position as a “turnaround teacher” at a school district in the San Carlos Apache reservation.
“Training other teachers how to teach,” Jesse said. “She said trying to teach adults is much more difficult than teaching kids.”
She reached the 30-year mark and was able to retire with a state pension. But her calling still called.
“She loved teaching so much that she eventually went back to her original school district and started teaching again,” Jesse said. “She loved to be in the classroom teaching kids.”
Jesse remembered that she would tell him, “I know I should be retired right now, but I just love my job.”
During time off, the entire extended Byrd clan loved to camp and fish and hunt and just about anything else that involved the outdoors.
“She was the best fisher out of all of us,” Luke said. “We’d be there with a little 5-pound fish and then she’d reel in a 20-pound fish.”
She held the family record for Catfish.
“75 pounds,” Luke said.
She also was a crack shot.
“She’d nail a target 500 yards away,” Luke recalled.
She had her own style when it came to hunting.
“She’d get her hair and nails done and go shoot a buck from 500 yards away,” Luke said.
She would always bring along her long-haired Chihuahua, named Chibi.
“She’d say, ‘That’s my little hunting dog,’” Luke said. “That little dog loved her.”
The family acquired a 35-foot camper two years ago that seemed like luxury personified after decades of tents.
“That was her pride and joy,” Jesse said.
Everything seemed to have worked out so well that they discerned a divine intent.
“We always felt that God meant for us to be together,” Jesse said.
When COVID-19 began to hit other parts of the country, the Byrds did not wait for it to become manifest in their own little town before they began taking the recommended precautions.
“We took the pandemic seriously,” Jesse said. “We knew she was high-risk. We felt like we were doing everything we could.”
Kim not only wore a mask, but she sewed them for everybody else.
“She made me a Dallas Cowboys mask,” Jess said. “That’s my team.”
The schools shut down, but Kim and her colleagues kept teaching kids in their homes. Kids who could afford a computer or an iPad got online lessons. Those who could not received workbook packets. The teachers would then telephone the parents.
“Seeing who needed help,” Jesse said.
When the academic year ended, Kim signed up to teach summer school with the same methods.
“Going to school even though there were no students at the school,” Jesse said. “Putting together lessons for kids.”
Kim continued to take precautions as she worked in a room with Jena Martinez and Angela Skillings.
“They were doing the social distancing and everything,” Jesse said.
The Byrds were careful, but not yet fearful. They did not know anybody who had caught COVID and they had only heard talk of a single case in Superior.
Then Kim herself fell ill.
Then came the other two teachers.
Then came Jesse.
A total of 12 members of the Byrd family tested positive. They included Luke, who remembered thinking that a rural area such as theirs would not be as threatened by the virus.
“A lot of us thought we’d be a little bit safer from the pandemic, but once it hit here, it just spread so fast,” he said.
All save Kim survived. She leaves a final lesson for those officials who would reopen the schools even as the virus continues to explode.
Not that Kim Byrd would have ever let fear keep her from joining her kids when the schools did reopen. She had ordered face shields in anticipation of that day.
“Let me tell you, she was prepared to do it,” Jesse said. “She was such a devoted teacher she was fearless.”
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