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Teachers Help Colleague Diagnosed With Cancer Stay Safe In Classroom

Five women in a school hallway wearing face masks and teal shirts with Team Patricia printed on them
Provided by Patricia Cornelius
Lynn Haven Elementary School teacher Patricia Cornelius (center) stands with her fellow first-grade teachers who she says have treated her like family since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April, 2020.

As K-12 students across the state return to the classroom, immunocompromised teachers are relying on their school district’s mandated safety precautions, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing and regular deep cleaning, to protect themselves from serious illness.

At one Bay County school, a group of teachers is taking extra steps to reduce their colleague’s exposure to the virus.

Patricia Cornelius, who teaches first grade at Lynn Haven Elementary School, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April. Over the summer, she says she was busy thinking of ways to protect herself from getting sick while teaching her first-grade students face-to-face. “I really was starting to get nervous,” she said. “With doing the chemo, I don’t have an immune system right now.”

Cornelius says she was eager for school to start, but concern about her health made her unsure if teaching in-person classes was the right choice. “In the back of my head, I would think, ‘Gosh, it just takes one. It just takes one exposure. And what if I get sick?’”

Her fellow first-grade teachers at Lynn Haven Elementary were busy thinking about her, too. Cornelius says she was in constant contact with them via group chat. They were well aware of her health concerns, she said. “I just have been so blessed by their support. All along on this journey, they really look out for me,” she said. “They’re vigilant about wearing masks around me or helping me out. If I’m tired, they’ll go up to the office and check my box for me.”

The teachers came up with a plan after the district created an e-learning option called BayLink. Once they knew how many first-graders at their school were enrolled in BayLink, the teachers decided to assign most of those students to Cornelius’s class.

Now all of her students are learning from home, which means she can isolate in her classroom and reduce her risk of being exposed to the virus. “I go live for math, reading, science, social studies,” Cornelius said.

She says the lessons are also recorded for students to watch later if they can’t watch live. “I will be meeting with students in smaller groups on Google Meet, addressing their academic needs. And I email with their parents, as they’re figuring it out,” she said. “A lot of phone calls and emails right now.”

Lynn Haven Elementary School Principal John Cannon says other schools in the district are trying something similar—in some cases, for different reasons. “I’ve heard other people talk about using that model because there’s one teacher that’s more adept at the technology than others,” he said. “This is a group that’s not frightened by the technology aspect at all. They were just looking out for their coworker's health and welfare.”

Cannon says this model could be replicated elsewhere. It just takes a group of kind teachers and a supportive work environment. “It’s a situation where you have a group that’s already used to working very effectively and seamlessly together, coming up with a very empathetic solution to what they were foreseeing as a very dire problem in the future.”

Cannon says his school has been following all CDC guidelines.

Within just one week of students returning to the classroom, Bay County’s schools are already reporting confirmed coronavirus cases. District officials say they’ve identified a little more than 100 people who must self-quarantine at home due to close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

In a video posted online, Bay District Schools’ COVID-19 Point of Contact Nurse Lyndsey Jackson urged parents to keep their child at home if they are sick.

“If at any point in time, someone that has been informed of an exposure, or if you develop symptoms but not been informed of your minimal exposure you should self-monitor, make a list of those symptoms and contact your health care provider," she said. "And then contact the school so we can determine if the student should be attending or if they should be self-quarantining at that time.”

Although Bay Haven Charter Academy has notified parents online of a student who tested positive, the district hasn’t yet released the names of schools that have had confirmed positive cases.

“We are currently working with the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Education to determine exactly how much information we can share with you about these positive cases that we know will continue despite our best efforts,” Superintendent Bill Husfelt wrote in a letter to parents on Friday. “We want to be as transparent as possible but must also work within the guidelines established by DOE and DOH.”

Patricia Cornelius says in the next few months her e-learning students are going to start coming back to school for in-person instruction. She says by that time she expects to have finished her chemotherapy treatments. As her students begin gradually returning, she’s planning to require them to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands regularly.

“Especially in my situation, you can bet, I’ll be doing all the protocols in trying to keep us all safe.”