By Andrea Salcedo, The Washington Post
Teresa Sperry beamed with pride in September when she told her father about the job she’d been assigned by her fifth-grade teacher.
Days earlier, the teacher had made Teresa the “class nurse,” putting the Virginia girl in charge of walking sick classmates to the nurse’s office, waiting for them to be treated and, at times, returning to the classroom to retrieve their backpacks if Hillpoint Elementary School officials sent them home, her father, Jeff Sperry, told The Washington Post.
“I asked her, ‘So is this your job?’ ” Sperry recounted. “And she gave me several examples of people that day she took to the nurse’s office.”
Sperry, who was driving Teresa and her brothers home from school, was infuriated. The school never asked for her parents’ consent, he said, and he feared for his unvaccinated daughter’s health as the delta variant spread across the country in the coronavirus pandemic’s second year.
Those worries mounted when, days later, Teresa returned home from school with a headache and a day later, hit a 102-degree fever. Within a week, she was dead.
On Sept. 27, Teresa became one of the first children in Virginia to die of covid-19. Her death certificate states that she died of cardiac arrest caused by coronavirus complications.
“My daughter was 10, and the vaccine wasn’t out” yet for children, Sperry, 41, told The Post. “Of all the people in the world who could have done that job, she was unprotected.”
Teresa contracted the virus weeks before federal public health authorities approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 — but her parents say she would have received it as soon as possible.
The Sperrys will never know whether Teresa, whose story was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot and WAVY, caught the coronavirus at school. Suffolk Public Schools completed an investigation into Teresa’s death that revealed that a teacher assigned the girl the “class nurse” job on Sept. 21. The teacher, though, denied that Teresa was asked to escort sick children to the nurse’s office and said the girl never accompanied students who exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus to the clinic, according to a three-page report reviewed by The Post.
Teresa’s parents said they had to file a public records request to obtain a copy of the report. Dissatisfied by the district’s investigation, they are now demanding a new probe from administration officials and the release of dozens of records, including emails, interviews and surveillance video they say the school declined to release when they filed their public records request.
“They aren’t being honest,” Teresa’s mother, Nicole Sperry, also 41, told The Post. “What Teresa told us does not match the report.”
A spokeswoman with the district declined to answer questions sent by The Post, saying that Suffolk Public Schools “cannot comment on any particular student or how Suffolk Public Schools addresses the health needs of any particular student.”
“However, Suffolk Public Schools issued COVID-19 Guidelines to address and promote safety, health, and welfare of our students, employees, and our community,” spokeswoman Anthonette Ward told The Post in an email.
Neither Hillpoint Elementary School’s principal nor the assistant principal responded to messages from The Post.
When the pandemic hit, the Sperrys spent most of their time at home to protect Jeff, who is diabetic, suffers from high blood pressure and is on disability after suffering a spinal injury. One of the couple’s four children adapted well to remote learning, the Sperrys said, but not Teresa, who was used to spending hours playing outside with other neighborhood kids or attending Girl Scouts meetings before the pandemic. The other two were vaccinated and attended in-person school.
“She missed her friends so much,” Nicole Sperry told The Post. “… She loved school. She hated last year because they were virtual all year.”
After months of Teresa’s remote-learning fatigue and missing her teachers and friends, the Sperrys, like many parents, weighed the risks of sending their unvaccinated daughter back to school. They eventually agreed to let her return to her elementary school, hoping her mental health, social life and the quality of her education would outweigh the risks.
Parenting a child under 12 in the age of delta: ‘It’s like a fire alarm every day’
Teresa rarely got sick, her parents said, but on Sept. 22, she walked into the nurse’s office complaining of a headache that started around 3 p.m., the school report states. Teresa rested in the clinic before going home for the day, the nurse wrote. The nurse recommended that she come back to school the following day and instructed Teresa to ask her parents to call if she experienced any additional symptoms, according to the report.
Teresa returned to school the following day, but when she got home, she took an unusually long nap and complained about a headache. When she woke up, she recorded a 102-degree fever, her parents said. They did not send her to school the next day and called her pediatrician to report her symptoms. The doctor suggested scheduling a coronavirus test in five days but told them to treat her illness as if it were the virus, out of an abundance of caution.
So Teresa self-quarantined in her room. Her father, who did not test positive until the day she died, at times joined her because he was already exhibiting some symptoms. Teresa complained of a sore throat and headache, but her symptoms quickly escalated by the weekend, when she began wheezing and throwing up. At some point, her mother took her to the emergency room because she started coughing and continued throwing up. The hospital gave her a coronavirus test and sent her home that day.
Then, a day later, when the doctor called to say Teresa had tested positive for the virus, her father attempted to demonstrate what her wheezing sounded like. But when Jeff walked into Teresa’s bedroom to hold the phone to his daughter’s mouth, he realized Teresa wasn’t breathing.
“I started doing chest compressions,” Sperry said. By the time emergency responders arrived, he said he could hear them yelling, “C’mon, breathe. Breathe. Stay with me.”
Paramedics rushed Teresa to the hospital, but doctors were unable to resuscitate the girl. At 4:39 p.m., Teresa died in front of her mother. Her father, still sick with covid, remained at home with Theresa’s siblings, who were quarantining.
After Teresa’s death, her school ordered an investigation. According to the report obtained by the Sperrys, Teresa was the first student in her class to test positive for the virus. Two other students tested positive days after Teresa died, the report states.
The school nurse told investigators that she recalled Teresa “walking down a student with an arm injury” and another incident in which the same student needed an inhaler, but said the girl never came inside the clinic. Her teacher, the report states, told the district that she “never sent her with any sick kids.” Teresa had walked one student with a twisted ankle to the clinic and was also sent to collect Band-Aids, that teacher said.
In total, according to the report, Teresa escorted at least two children to the nurse’s office between Sept. 21 and Sept. 23.
“Additionally, it was determined that students suspected of possible Covid-19 symptoms are escorted to the designated isolation space by the school nurse or school administration,” the report states. “Teresa never escorted students to the clinic who exhibited Covid-19 like symptoms.”
But the Sperrys dispute the findings, saying that before her death, Teresa had provided more than two examples in which she walked sick students to the nurse’s office. The girl’s parents say the district’s report does not match what their daughter shared before she became ill and are demanding what Nicole Sperry calls a “more thorough investigation.”
“How many times did they make her do this?” Jeff Sperry asked. “The thing I want from them is the truth. What happened? So I can stop worrying about it and stop thinking about it.”
Vaccinated adults may have more freedom. But for kids, ‘the rules haven’t changed.’
Whatever role Teresa played as the class nurse, her parents say it was because she was a natural giver. When her mom was a substitute teacher at Hillpoint Elementary School years ago, Teresa would often offer to walk kindergartners to the bus, read books to younger students or help out the librarian.
At home, she spent hours painting, drawing and sewing, a skill she’d taught herself so she could make clothes for her dolls. She loved singing to “Frozen” and “The Greatest Showman” soundtracks with her mom. Christmas was her favorite holiday, and every night one of her parents would put her to sleep singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or another of her favorites, “Let It Go” from “Frozen.”
“The song that never ends,” as her father put it.
Before Nicole Sperry left the hospital on the day Teresa died, the staff let her cut a lock of her daughter’s hair. She sang “Let It Go” one more time to Teresa before she said her last goodbye.
“I can’t believe you’re gone,” Nicole whispered to her daughter as she held her hand.
Following the 10-year-old’s death, the hospital gifted the Sperrys a memory box with the lock of Teresa’s hair, a clay mold of her hands and a tiny message in a bottle with a printout of her last recorded heartbeat. The box now sits by the Sperrys’ bedside table.
Inspired by the leap and fall of Teresa’s last heartbeat, her mother brought the printout to a tattoo parlor months later. Pointing to her arm, she asked that it be inked onto her body forever.