8 Tennessee public school employees dead from COVID in first month of school

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Just before she went to bed on Tuesday, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown got word of yet another public school teacher who died this week as a result of COVID-19. Brown returned to what has now become a painful but familiar ritual since the pandemic first began.

"One of the very last things I did last night was write a note of sympathy," Brown said Wednesday. "Unless we get more mitigation measures in place, this is going to keep happening."

At least eight Tennessee public school employees – three elementary school teachers, one pre-K assistant, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver and two high school teachers – have died since the school year began after contracting COVID-19. The total is an imperfect tally of a grim statistic that no one government agency or private entity is monitoring in a systematic way.

The state Department of Education does not keep track of COVID-19 deaths of school employees, according to spokesperson Brian Blackley.

The education association does not keep a formal count either. Brown said she is typically alerted when members pass away, but has no way of knowing the underlying causes for every death nor does she routinely receive word on the deaths of non-union members.

The eight deaths were confirmed through family members, school staff, pastors, media reports and online obituaries.

In each instance, school employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the days or weeks before their deaths, and in each case there was no definitive answer on where someone contracted the virus. Individual schools cited privacy rules in declining to comment about the causes of death among staff members.

On social media, parents and others have posted sympathy messages about three other coronavirus-related deaths among educators that have not yet be confirmed.

Among the confirmed deaths since Aug. 8:

- Tamy Sims Murphy, 56, a Knox County school bus driver and grandmother of five, whose death from complications of COVID-19 on Wednesday was confirmed by her sister Julie Sims Schommer. "Lord I come to you to please heal my body I have a lot of living to do. I have beautiful grandbabies that need me. My kids need me," Murphy posted from her hospital bed on Aug. 18.

- Angela Klosterman, 50, a veteran elementary school teacher in Cheatham County Public Schools, where she worked for 26 years. Klosterman died of COVID-19 complications on Sept. 5, Brian Talley, pastor of Big Muddy Baptist Church in Kentucky, confirmed. Klosterman was a Clarksville resident and a kindergarten teacher at West Cheatham Elementary School at the time of her death.

- Angela Bonner, 50, and Geneva Johnson, 59 - two employees of Fayette County Public Schools in West Tennessee, died within two weeks of each other. Bonner, a cafeteria worker at LaGrange-Moscow Elementary, died Aug. 21. Johnson, a teaching assistant at West Junior High School, died Aug. 8. Both women had contracted COVID-19 before their deaths, a district employee confirmed Wednesday.

"They were both the sweetest ladies," said the employee, who asked that her name be withheld because she is not an official spokeswoman.

WREG TV in Memphis reported that both women were ill before the school semester formally began. Bonner had not reported to work at all this school year, while Johnson attended a staff development day the week before students returned, but was unable to return to the classroom, the news station said.

- Christie Brown Litchfield, 45, a first grade teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. Litchfield and her husband, Jason, were both hospitalized with COVID-19, a Sept. 4 Facebook post by the couple's church, Wilee's Chapel UMC in Woodlawn, Tenn., said. Christie Litchfield died Sept. 6, according to her obituary.

- Sumner County high school teacher and tennis coach William 'Bill' Rappuhn, 57, died Aug. 29 after being diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier in the month, according to his pastor.

- Shelby County teachers Ashley Leatherwood, 31, and Catrina Brooks, 50, died within two days of one another. Leatherwood, a second-grade teacher at Riverwood Elementary in Cordova, Tennessee, died Aug. 16, according to her obituary. Brooks, a pre-kindergarten classroom assistant who had worked for the district for 30 years, died Aug. 18.

Leatherwood's death after contracting COVID-19 was first reported by WREG, which cited family members and a school colleague for her diagnosis. Her family has since asked for privacy. Brooks' death was confirmed by her aunt, Virgie Nelson.

Since last weekend, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, has been posting on social media local news reports of teachers' deaths as a result of complications from COVID-19 with urgent messages about the need for universal masking in schools and vaccinations among eligible Tennesseans.

"What I'm doing is lifting the voices of those in my community, the parents, the teachers, the nurses and doctors who want stronger mitigation measures in place at schools," Johnson said. "My entire caucus has been pushing the state to do just that. Meanwhile, teachers in classrooms are dying."

Sent a list of the deceased employees and asked for comment about what the deaths meant for the governor, a spokesperson for Gov. Bill Lee did not respond.

Brown, the teacher's union president, said her organization continues to advocate for more local control for school districts, who have been barred from requiring universal masking by Lee's executive order giving parents the choice to opt out of mask rules. Brown said it should be up to local school districts and school boards to set mask rules,

"Local control has long been a fundamental priority within the state of Tennessee," Brown said. "I think one of the struggles right now is that local decision-making bodies have had their hands tied by the governor."

"This isn't the first time we are seeing educators die as a result of COVID," she said. "We've also lost students. We have families, communities, schools who are grieving. As we consider the losses and we consider the very real grief folks are experiencing, let's not let it be politicized. Educators are such pillars of our communities, and when we lose an educator, it impacts so many people, including the students. I don't want the very real grief to get lost in politics."

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.