Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Alex Zimmerman, Reema Amin, Christina Veiga on March 23, 2020
A Brooklyn principal has died due to complications of the coronavirus, the first known death of a public school staff member connected to the epidemic, city officials confirmed Monday evening.
The principal, Dez-Ann Romain, ran Brownsville’s Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer school that serves students who have struggled at traditional high schools and are unlikely to graduate on time.
“It is with profound sadness and overwhelming grief that we announce the passing of our sister, CSA member Dezann Romain, Principal of Brooklyn Democracy Academy, due to complications from Coronavirus,” the Council of Schools Supervisors and Administrators wrote in a statement.
Romain was 36, according to public records and an education department superintendent. As of Monday evening, there were over 13,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in New York City, with 125 deaths connected to the disease, city figures show. Only three people under age 44 have died from COVID-19.
“This is painful for all of us, and I extend my deepest condolences to the Brooklyn Democracy Academy community, and the family of Principal Romain,” schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “We’ll be there for the students and staff through whatever means necessary during this impossibly difficult time.”
Those who worked with Romain said she was dedicated to her school and worked to make it part of the fabric of the community.
“She gave her entire self to that community, and it did not matter how incredibly complex a problem was,” said Courtney Winkfield, who coached Romain three years ago after rising from the school’s assistant principal to principal. “She was always rolling her sleeves up to do whatever she could to solve it.”
Romain thought of her school as part of the “larger ecosystem” of Brownsville, a mantra that helped her bring in a hydroponics lab that would provide fresh produce for the community, said Winkfield, who now works in the education department’s Office of Equity and Access.
On days Winkfield visited the school, she would joke that it took 20 minutes to get from one class to the next because Romain would stop to chat with every student they passed in the hallway.
“She never pitied her students. She never second guessed what she was there to do,” said Winkfield. “She took every kid as her mission.”
The city’s public schools have been shut down since March 16, though teachers and principals were still asked to report to their buildings for three days last week, a move that garnered criticism among some educators and observers who feared for their own health and worried they could spread the disease.
Since the city has stopped publicly confirming coronavirus cases at city schools, it is not clear if there were other infections of students and staff in the school building. Some educators said the city’s decision to stop informing school communities about positive cases has created panic among educators, forcing them to take their own steps to inform each other that they may have been exposed to the virus.
“This needs to serve as a wake-up call,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of City Council’s education committee. “I have heard from school communities across the city who are confused and concerned about protocols when staff test positive,” he added. “That needs to end tomorrow.”
City officials did not immediately respond to questions about when Romain fell ill, when the city learned of her illness, and what steps were taken, if any, to inform or protect the school community.
Paul Rotondo, the superintendent who oversees transfer schools, said he was “absolutely devastated at the loss of such a young, dedicated professional woman.”
“She gave her all for every teacher and staff member,” he added. “It will be a long time before we’re able to fill her shoes.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams gave at least $20,000 from his office to help the school’s farm get off the ground, in the hopes it would provide fresh food to local seniors, families in public housing, and others who might otherwise lack access to a healthy meal. He praised her dedication to students.
“Too many in our society have written off the young scholars under her stewardship, but where others saw problems she saw promise and potential,” Adams said in a statement. “The loss of Principal Romain is particularly painful for the Brooklyn Democracy Academy family, our larger public school community, and a borough grateful for her service.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.