State Threatens Broward Schools as District Mourns Three Educators Who Died from COVID

Facebook profile belonging to Yolonda Hudson Williams, 49, who died of complications from COVID-19
Facebook profile belonging to Yolonda Hudson Williams, 49, who died of complications from COVID-19 Screenshot via Facebook
Three Broward County Public Schools educators should have been welcoming students into their classrooms today, the first day of the 2021-2022 school year. Instead, the State Board of Education announced yesterday that the Broward County school district had violated state laws by adopting a mask mandate, prompting state education commissioners to suggest withholding salaries and removing officers in the district. 

That news — and even the suggestion of punitive action — seems especially harsh: It hasn't even been a week since staff and students learned that three Broward educators had died of complications stemming from COVID-19. The women all passed away within a 24-hour window. None of them were vaccinated, Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco informs New Times.

Collective morale in recent weeks, Fusco says, has whipsawed between teachers’ excitement heading into the new school year and anxiety over keeping students (and themselves) from falling ill in the classroom.

The untimely deaths came as public school districts across Florida are at odds with Gov. Ron DeSantis' Republican administration, which has threatened reprisal in recent weeks should the districts implement mask mandates without providing opt-out provisions for parents.

So far, only two county school districts — Broward and Alachua — have opted to defy the governor’s order.

The School Board of Miami-Dade County is poised to adopt its own mask mandate when it convenes later today. On Monday, a task force consisting of medical professionals voted unanimously in support of a mandate in the county schools. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has also signaled he supports a policy requiring face coverings when students return to classrooms on August 23.

Over the course of the summer, South Florida has seen an onslaught of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations as the Delta variant ravages the state. An overwhelming majority of the population hospitalized or dying from complications of the virus are unvaccinated.

Now, loved ones and colleagues are mourning the loss of three women, all of whom were experienced educators who spent the bulk of their careers with Broward Schools. Fusco, the Broward Teachers Union president, confirmed their identities to New Times.

Here's what we know.

Katina Jones, Dillard Elementary School

Jones was a 49-year-old teacher at Dillard Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale who spent 24 years working with the district, Fusco says.

The week she died, Jones phoned her brother, Korey, who knew by the sound of his sister's voice that she was unwell, CBS Miami reported.

“I was the one that picked up the phone when she wasn’t sounding good,” Korey Jones told the station. "She fought a good fight."

After he called her an ambulance, Katina Jones was admitted to an area hospital where she was placed on a ventilator. She died August 10.

Jones told CBS Miami that he hopes his sister's story inspires others to get vaccinated.

According to Facebook, Jones graduated from Dillard High School in 1990.
click to enlarge Katina Jones and Yolanda Hudson Williams both graduated from Dillard High School in 1990 - SCREENSHOT VIA FACEBOOK
Katina Jones and Yolanda Hudson Williams both graduated from Dillard High School in 1990
Screenshot via Facebook

Yolonda Hudson Williams, Dillard Elementary School

Yolanda Hudson Williams was a 49-year-old educator who worked with the Broward school district for 26 years. She graduated from Dillard High in the same class as Jones. Her older sister called her "YoYo."

Fusco says Williams most recently worked as a teacher's assistant at Dillard Elementary. (She and Jones did not work in the same classroom.)

On May 3, a Facebook account appearing to belong to Williams updated its profile photo. In it, Williams beams a warm smile into the camera. Her face is framed by a graphic celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week.

New Times has been unable to independently verify Williams' exact date of death. Those mourning her passing on Facebook list the date as August 9.

Janice Wright, Pinewood Elementary School

Janice Wright was a 48-year-old teacher at Pinewood Elementary School in North Lauderdale. She dedicated 15 years as an educator to Broward Schools. According to a Twitter account called School Personnel Lost to Covid, Wright was a special-education teacher and union steward.

Katrina Whittaker, a friend of Wright's, told CBS Miami she received a phone call last week and she picked up thinking it was Wright, whom she has known for the past two decades. But the voice on the other end wasn't Janice's.

“It wasn’t her — it was her husband saying, 'No, Janice passed,' and I lost it," the TV station quoted her as saying. "I couldn’t believe it."

New Times could not verify Wright's exact date of death.

Whitaker described her friend to CBS Miami as "very nice, very caring, very loving," adding, "She just wanted the best for everyone.” She said Wright always wore a facemask.

Now, in her grief, Whittaker is using the impossible circumstances to advocate for vaccination against the disease.

“My thing is, please, to everyone, is please go get the shot," she said in the interview. "I think if she was here she would say the same thing."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Majchrowicz is a staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.