A Texas school district has temporarily halted its in-person learning after two junior high school teachers died of coronavirus within the first weeks of the school year.
Natalia Chansler, 41, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, and David “Andy” McCormick, 59, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, had just welcomed students back to their classrooms at Connally Junior High School, outside of Waco, when they both became ill with COVID-19, last month.
"It has been very devastating and heartbreaking for the students, the staff, for everybody that surrounds the situation," Jill Bottelberghe, assistant superintendent of human resources, told ABC News on Tuesday. “The one thing you don't ever know is exactly how many lives they have touched as an educator… so I'm sure we're not the only ones that are feeling that heartbreak right now.”
McCormick was diagnosed with COVID-19 just one day after the start of the school year on Aug. 19, dying less than a week later. Shortly after McCormick’s death, Chansler tested positive for the virus, dying just three days after her diagnosis, according to the district.
“Never thought that we would have to do that again in the same school year, much less within a week,” Bottelberghe said.
The decision to shutter school buildings was made following a “continued increase in Covid-19 cases” and absences among staff and students, district officials said in a letter to the community.
“With the loss of two beloved teachers, we know that concerns for physical and mental health are heightened. We want to assure you that we are focused on measures to take care of our students and staff,” Wesley Holt, Connally ISD superintendent wrote, adding that the district is working to conduct a thorough sanitizing of the junior high campus, and will offer free COVID testing to any community members, prior to students returning to school buildings after Labor Day.
Bottelberghe said although the district is now just weeks into the school year, there has already been a rising number of students and staff testing positive, with a 17% positivity rate among students, and a 15% positivity rate among staff, at the junior high school.
Texas continues to struggle through its latest COVID-19 surge, with nearly 14,000 patients currently hospitalized, and more than 16,000 residents testing positive for the virus each day.
According to federal data, Texas currently has the highest number of confirmed and suspected pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country, with 364 children receiving care across the state. Further, as of Aug. 22, more than 20,200 Texas public school students, and nearly 7,500 teachers and staff members, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year, according to state data.
McCormick was entering his first-year teaching in the Connally School District, but was "well-known" for his connections in the community. He also taught for the district in the past, according to district officials. According to his obituary, he served in the U.S. Air Force, following his graduation from Pan American University. McCormick's vaccination status was unknown to the district.
ABC News could not reach McCormick's family.
Chansler, who was the youngest of 10 children, according to her family, was entering her second year with Connally School District. The 41-year-old had previously taught in the LaVega and the Waco school districts, and she had recently become a new grandmother.
“Natalia was one of the funniest, wittiest, beautiful, smartest baby sisters that you could ask for,” Annice Niecy Chansler, one of Chansler’s sisters, told ABC News. “She was kind of like a mom to [her students] at school, teaching them how to balance out their lives to be productive outside of school. She loved on them.”
Chansler's other sister, La Andrea, said she was not against vaccination, but she had some "unique issues that caused her to question whether or not the vaccine was for her."
“She was considering getting the vaccine, and she was still doing her own research,” said Annice, who is also a school nurse in another Texas school district. “I don't think she thought that COVID would take her as fast as it did. She was thinking okay, when all this was over, that she would get [the vaccine].”
Annice said although her sister took other precautions, she was still left vulnerable to the virus.
"She [wore] her mask, but if the delta variant wants to get you, because 1,000 kids around you are not protected, that's what's gonna happen. She was nervous about it. But she couldn't afford to stay at home," Annice said, asserting that she "absolutely" believes face coverings should be required in schools.
In the past several weeks, the contentious back and forth debates over mask mandates in Texas schools have escalated. Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order barring school districts from instituting mask mandates, several Texas school districts have defied state orders and require face coverings. However, the Connally school district has not made the move to mandate masks.
"It's kind of out of our hands," said Bottelberghe, who said that although masking remains a personal choice, school officials are highly encouraging all students and staff to wear a mask.
“We are currently consulting with our school district attorney, as far as what we can do as far as what our next steps are. We just want to make sure that we aren't defying an order that may come back and hurt the district or the students in any way.”
Bottelberghe stressed the district will work to do whatever is best for the students.
“We're definitely trying to get some control over the situation, you know, at no point do we ever want to put anybody in harm's way,” Bottelberghe said.