COVID death toll among Tennessee public school employees rises

At least 27 employees have died to date, including three this month in Rutherford County

By: - October 22, 2021 5:02 am
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

School counselors were on-hand at Walter Hill Elementary in Rutherford County as students and staff learned Thursday of the latest COVID death to impact the school system: a 49-year-old custodian, who had worked at other schools in the district before starting a new job at the elementary school in September.

The employee, Angela Dawn Crook, is one of three Rutherford County public school employees who died in October as a result of complications from COVID-19. Two other Rutherford County educators — 51-year-old assistant football coach Garry Mooney and 46-year-old teacher Angela Baker Morton — died earlier this month.

They are among the 27 Tennessee public school employee deaths as a result of COVID-19 since the 2021-2022 academic year began, the Tennessee Lookout confirmed.

It’s a toll that steadily climbed as the school year got underway. In August, seven Tennessee public school employees died after contracting COVID. Fourteen employees died in September.  Thus far in October, the Lookout has confirmed the deaths of five more public school employees.

Public acknowledgement of the deaths of educators from COVID-19 is rare and the Tennessee Department of Education does not keep track of such deaths.

The news of the Rutherford County deaths was shared on Facebook and Twitter by Rutherford County Schools officials and confirmed by a spokesman. In Hamilton County, Sale Creek Middle/High School principal LeAnn Welch earlier this month confirmed to the Chattanooga Times Free Press the death of 48-year-old math teacher Todd Wood, who passed away after being hospitalized for a month with COVID. And in Warren County School Superintendent Grant Swallows announced the death of John Upchurch, a 48-year-old math teacher who also ran his own CrossFit Gym.

But public acknowledgement of educator deaths from COVID is rare in Tennessee.

The state Department of Education does not keep track of COVID-19 deaths of school employees, according to spokesman Brian Blackley.

The Tennessee Education Association, the union representing teachers, is typically alerted when TEA members pass away, but has no way of knowing the underlying causes for every death nor do they routinely receive word on the deaths of public school employees who are not TEA members.

And many of the state’s school districts have declined to confirm the deaths, citing privacy considerations.

The Lookout confirmed public school employee deaths through colleagues, family members, pastors and media reports since early September.

Among the recent deaths: a 65-year-old elementary teacher in Lawrence County, a 42-year-old Knox County bus driver, three Clarksville-Montgomery School District teachers who died in one three-week period, and a 44-year-old Washington County educational assistant. The deaths range — in age — from the 81-year-old Clarksville bus driver who died on September 9 to the 31-year-old second grade teacher in Shelby County who died on August 16.

The 27 public school employee deaths does not include private school employee deaths or non-school employees who nevertheless worked in the public schools, such as the death of Teresa Fuller, 55, a Wilson County Sheriff deputy assigned to Rutland Elementary School in Mount Juliet. Fuller’s death from COVID complications on September 30 was announced by Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan.

Previous coverage:

8 Tennessee public school employees dead from COVID in first month of school

At least 14 Tennessee pubic school employees lost to covid since academic year began

COVID-19 deaths of public school employees climb

Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the Teresa Fuller. A previous version misidentified the late deputy’s last name.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.