Third-grade special-education teacher Debbie Wash thought perhaps she had the flu when she spiked a fever and developed a cough. She was stunned and then panicked when results showed she had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s not me that I was worried about. My first thought was, ‘My God, who was I around? Who did I put in harm’s way without knowing it?’”

Wash, a teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary in Berlin Township, said she came down with a cough on Oct. 24 after sleeping with a window open. Because she has a mold allergy, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, she followed safety protocol and notified her school nurse, and got tested for the coronavirus.

She burst into tears when the positive results confirmed her worst fears. Another teacher in her building also tested positive. The cases were deemed unrelated and she began a 14-day quarantine.

Wash, 55, was among a dozen students, parents, teachers, and school leaders interviewed over the summer by The Inquirer, and reflected on the conflict so many teachers faced as classes resumed for the 2020-21 school year. They wanted to teach but worried about the spread of the virus. Her district, like many in the region, began the year with a hybrid plan that includes in-person and virtual instruction.

"There are just so many unknowns,” Wash said in August. “Who can get sick? Who can carry it?”

Wash has no idea how she contracted the virus. She wore a mask, practiced social distancing, and took extra precautions outside of work. She teaches seven students in person two days a week in a resource center; only three are present at any given time.

Debbie Wash, 55, a teacher at Berlin Township Schools, tutoring Sage Uboh, 9, on factors and multiplication inside her home in Sicklerville in August.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Debbie Wash, 55, a teacher at Berlin Township Schools, tutoring Sage Uboh, 9, on factors and multiplication inside her home in Sicklerville in August.

In a letter to parents last week, Superintendent Edythe Austermuhl said all exposed areas in the school had been cleaned and disinfected. The district has two schools that enroll nearly 700 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grades.

“It just shows how contagious this thing is and how risky,” Kris Beers, president of the Berlin Township Education Association, said Thursday. “Every single teacher that I know or represent is scared.”

Since the beginning of the school year, Camden County has had six confirmed outbreaks in schools, involving 45 cases among students or staff, according to a state tracking dashboard. That is the most cases among New Jersey’s 21 counties.

Although alarming, the transmission rate is relatively low, said Rianna DeLuca, a Camden County communicable disease investigator. The virus is more often transmitted in large social gatherings among families and friends outside of school, she said.

“We’re concerned,” DeLuca said. “We don’t want any outbreaks in school.”

Elsewhere in South Jersey, Burlington County has had two confirmed outbreaks linked to a half-dozen cases, and Gloucester County has had two outbreaks linked to 10 cases.

Statewide, there have been 36 outbreaks with 146 cases, according to the dashboard. The data do not identify the schools or districts or provide details on how the virus was transmitted. The outbreaks have prompted some districts to return to all-remote learning.

Wash said her symptoms have mostly been mild but could have been worse because she has preexisting health conditions. She taught her math and language arts classes remotely during her illness and expects to return to school Monday.

“I’ve never felt so fatigued and exhausted,” she said. “Some days it feels like I got hit by a truck.”

Until now, the school year had gone well for her students, despite the challenges with social distancing. Wash said she believes the district had taken adequate safety precautions.

“We were all making the best of it,” she said.

An educator for more than three decades, Wash followed through on plans to make this her last year. The school board last week approved her retirement in June.

“It was a bittersweet decision,” she admitted.

She plans to tutor after retirement. The mother of two adult children, she wants to travel and spend more time with her first grandchild.

“Everybody loves her,” said Mia Nixon-Uboh, of Sicklerville, who hired Wash to tutor her daughter, Sage. Added Sage, 9, a fourth-grade honor roll student: “She is very kind, sweet, and thoughtful.”

Third-grade teacher Debbie Wash is shown in this undated photo from the 1980s when she began her teaching career. She is retiring in June.
Debbie Wash
Third-grade teacher Debbie Wash is shown in this undated photo from the 1980s when she began her teaching career. She is retiring in June.