A Kenosha educator is mourning the loss of her husband who died Jan. 3 from COVID-19 which she said she was exposed to at school and inadvertently passed along to him.
Jeanne Holmes Hoffman said she had been on unpaid medical leave from Sept. 28 to Nov. 30 caring for her husband Jim, an electrical engineer and service manager who was on disability and had health issues that rendered him high-risk for contracting the virus. Hoffman, a special education support professional at Brass Community School, returned to work Dec. 1 and tested positive for COVID-19 just nine days after.
Three weeks later, her husband, a veteran who served eight years in the U.S. Air Force, died.
Hoffman along with other educators have called for Unified to stay in an all-virtual format due to unsafe conditions, something for which the teacher’s union filed a class-action grievance in November. The district has since denied the grievance recommending instead to “meet and confer.” That meeting is scheduled to take place Wednesday.
“On Dec. 10, I went for a COVID test due to a positive case in our building, as well as I was experiencing symptoms,” she said Friday in correspondence forwarded by the Kenosha Education Association, the local teacher’s union. “I was positive when they took the test and Jim went into the hospital five days later and passed away of COVID.”
Hoffman was also caring for her mother, who also contracted COVID-19 from her, according to Tanya Kitts-Lewinski, a close friend of the educator.
“Her mother ended up having a COVID-induced stroke. Her mom is now home recovering. And her husband and her mother actually ended up across the hall from each other in the ICU,” Kitts-Lewinski said.
From Nov. 30 to Jan. 8, Unified switched to a virtual format for all students — with an exception for special education students in which in-person learning was recommended in individualized education plans — learning remotely in response to a surge in COVID-19 in the community. Unified teachers would also be permitted, but would not be required, to work from home as long as they had reliable internet connections to service students online. The option was not extended to educational support professionals.
Says she consulted with superiors
Hoffman’s situation was also shared at the Jan. 6 School Board meeting prior to the board opting to resume in-person learning on Jan. 11 for students who chose that format. The board voted to extend the virtual-only format to high school instruction through Jan. 22 in an effort not to disrupt finals. The district, as a part of its Return 2020 Plan gave families a choice for their children to attend either in-person or virtual learning at the start of the school year, which is now again in effect.
Prior to returning from medical leave, Hoffman said she raised a number of concerns with administration. She said she was given assurances that her family’s health risks would be considered along with her schedule and with regard to in-person contact with students.
“She was told that those health risks were going to be taken into account and that people who were sick were going to be sent home. And, that didn’t happen,” Kitts-Lewinski said.
Instead, Hoffman said in her statement to the School Board that she was assigned to three students attending school in person.
Kitts-Lewinski said there was someone on staff at Hoffman’s workplace who had symptoms and was not sent home. She said staff members at Brass had expressed concerns “on record” about the person’s attendance at work while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Took precautions outside of school
Hoffman said that she took care to avoid in-person contact whenever possible, following protocols for wearing masks, social distancing and sanitation.
“They took every precaution. People have been asking, ‘Well, how do you know?’ And people would say, `Well, didn’t you go to the grocery store?’” Kitts-Lewinski said of others who’ve raised questions. “No. She did not. She had groceries delivered. They were taking every precaution that they could because she knew that her husband and her mother were high-risk.”
When her husband became ill in mid-December, she was at his side for 19 days as he battled the virus.
“Despite how hard he fought, his body gave out in the end. Nothing can bring Jim Hoffman back. The void caused by missing his presence is felt every moment by me and my family,” Hoffman said in her statement, which was read to the board by KEA Executive Director Kendra Koeppen-Mulwana.
“This did not need to happen to my husband. As much as one might hope otherwise, it is naïve to believe that a district our size is equipped to keep people safe in any meaningful way,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said that although there is no substitute for learning in person, “that does not justify risking lives.”
“KUSD has failed to execute a plan that prioritizes safety and accountability and my husband lost his life because of it,” she said.
Tanya Ruder, Unified’s spokesperson, said the district has always required anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive COVID-19 test result to remain at home in accordance with staff and student screening procedures.
She said the district used to wait for a positive confirmation from the county Health Department prior to quarantining close contacts, however, Unified changed its practice in mid-November requiring that staff and/or students who were close contacts to a COVID-positive individual “quarantine upon the report of a positive case.”
“This change to our quarantine practice has allowed us to better protect our staff and students as cases spiked, which was also causing delays in response time from the health department,” Ruder said. “We intend to continue with this practice going forward.”
Another case reported
Kitts-Lewinski said Hoffman’s case is the second such occurrence in which a district employee contracted COVID-19 at school passing it to a “high-risk spouse” who then died. The other was reported at Lincoln Middle School to the KEA in November.
“That person has not chosen to go public yet,” Kitts-Lewinski.
Kitts-Lewinski said Kenosha Unified is the only one of the “big five” urban districts in the state that currently allows for in-person learning.
“It’s frankly, unbelievable,” Kitts-Lewinski said. “There’s no other district of our size that is doing this.”
Kenosha Unified is the third largest school district Wisconsin.
“None of the big-five urban districts have in-person learning right now, with some exceptions for special education,” she said.
Kitts-Lewinski said in Madison special education staff who assist students in person have become a priority for its district to receive vaccinations against COVID-19.
“They’re in the top-tiered group. They’re taking it incredibly seriously,” she said.
On Wednesday agenda
Kitts-Lewinski said union leaders expect to discuss safety protocols and other issues at the upcoming meeting Wednesday.
“We have asked that Dr. Jen Freiheit (Kenosha County Division of Health director) and members of her staff be included so that we can get an update on vaccinations and testing,” she said.
Kitts-Lewinski said because of conditions surrounding the pandemic at Unified schools, many teachers are opting to resign or retire.
“It just makes me really sad to think the failure to prioritize safety in our district is going to have some long-term effects on the quality of education if something doesn’t change very quickly,” she said.
Jeanne and Jim Hoffman were married 32 years before his death. Jim was the “love of her life” and that she was looking forward to retirement in next three to five years and spending more time with him and their grandson, she said.
In the meantime, Kitts-Lewinski said Hoffman feels strongly her husband would want to share their case with the public “so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
“To her what’s most important is to prevent against more unnecessary loss of life in our district,” she said.
IN PHOTOS: 61st Street homicide investigation
A man was shot and killed Friday morning, Jan. 15, 2021, while walking along 61st Street in what neighbors said appeared to them to be a targeted hit.
The shooting happened along the side of the street just east of 22nd Avenue in Uptown at about 9:15 a.m.
Kenosha Police said the 28-year-old Kenosha man was taken to Froedtert Pleasant Prairie Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.