Co-workers say Shyla Pennington, a longtime Florida teacher’s aide, was a natural with her students—patient, kind, and committed to each child as if they were her own.
Pennington, who worked for almost 20 years in the Volusia County School District, lived with her brother, Gerald Jones, a paramedic whom community members described as “selfless” and “devoted” to protecting other people. This weekend, both died of COVID-19.
The progression of the disease—slow, then devastatingly fast—played out on the Facebook page of their father, Greg Jones.
“Our daughter Shyla Pennington is now with God, she lost her battle with COVID-19,” Jones wrote on Saturday. Then, the next day: “Our son Gerald is still fighting this mess so please keep him in your prayers.” Less than 12 hours later, he wrote: “2 days after we lost our daughter we just got a call saying we lost our son to [COVID-19]. Rest in peace my children.”
“Take this virus seriously, wear your masks, do your social distancing, all that,” Jones told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “I know they’ve said it a billion times... but we can speak from experience now: Take it seriously.”
Pennington tested positive for the virus less than a week after classes started at Sugar Hill Elementary, where she had recently started assisting teachers in a special-education classroom. She was rushed to the hospital Sept. 11 with critically low oxygen saturation levels and then developed kidney and blood pressure issues, according to her family’s Facebook posts. She died last week at the age of 41.
The school district declined to answer specific questions on Pennington’s case but said in a statement that she was a “dedicated employee who loved children and also was a devoted mother, daughter, sister, and friend to many.”
“We are deeply saddened by her passing, and our hearts go out to her family, friends, and colleagues in Volusia County Schools,” the district said.
Twenty-seven students and 23 employees of Volusia County Schools have tested positive for the coronavirus since classes started. County-wide, more than 10,500 residents have tested positive and 226 have died, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The Volusia County School District and the local teachers’ union are currently deadlocked over proper measures for protecting teachers and returning to school. Shortly before classes started, the union accused the district in a news release of “refusing to listen to the advice and guidance of health experts across the state and nation.” Last week’s meeting between the district and union ran from four in the afternoon to 2:30 in the morning, according to school board chair Carl Persis. A school board meeting was ongoing at the time of publication.
Persis previously told a local news station that the district did not believe Pennington contracted the virus at school or a school-related function. But asked by The Daily Beast whether there was any evidence of that he said, “No. There really isn’t.”
“I guess they’re assuming that if she got it at school then somebody else at school should be testing positive,” he said, though he later admitted he was not aware how many teachers or students in Pennington’s classroom were tested or even removed from the classroom.
Volusia County School’s COVID-19 website states that the district “has protocols to be executed at every school site for situations relating to students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 and positive COVID-19 tests.” A section labeled “COVID Protocols” contains only a CDC flowchart.
At least six school teachers nationwide have died from the coronavirus since school started this year. A recent working paper from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington, and Davidson Colleges linked the reopening of college campuses for in-person classes with 3,000 additional cases per day.
But Pennington’s father, Greg Jones, told The Daily Beast his daughter was not afraid to go back to work in person.
“I even asked her, I said, ‘I’m worried about you,’” he said of Pennington. “But she said, ‘No, don’t worry about me, I’m good.’”
Jones’ son also had reason to worry: At least 37 first responders have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, according to one EMS organization. His son, Jones said, was a “very, very strong military person,” who served in Operation Desert Storm and was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“He was probably one of the most loved people [at Volusia County EMS] ever,” he said. ‘He was super with people. He was a calming influence, which I guess in that profession you need.”
Jones, whom friends and co-workers called “Jerry,” died Sunday at Halifax Health Medical Center after battling the virus for a week. In a Facebook dispatch from the hospital, between updates on his sister’s condition, he complained of being cold, then “sweaty hot.” (He still found time to tag his wife in a video of an Asian elephant getting a bath.)
“Jerry made a difference in so many lives during his 21 years of service in Volusia County, and held a presence that brought smiles to his coworkers and comfort to his patients day after day,” Volusia County EMS IAEP Local 77 wrote on Facebook—one of several tributes to Jones and his sister from local politicians and service groups.
Jones leaves behind a wife, Emily Jones, and a son. Pennington leaves behind a 20-year-old son, a college student majoring in dance.
“She loved her son—did everything for him and also for the kids at the school,” Kathleen Carman, a former co-worker, said of Pennington. “Working with kids with special needs can be a bit challenging at times but she was patient with them and loved them like her own.”
Carman, who retired a year ago, said she couldn’t imagine what it would be like going back into the classroom now.
“I can’t even imagine what [teachers] are going through right now—the challenges they’re facing and choices they have to make,” she said. “It’s the world we’re in right now, and I commend them every day for what they do to show up and do their jobs.”