Cobb teacher who made masks for doctors, nurses diagnosed with COVID-19

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cobb County teacher Julia Varnedoe used her spare time to make masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Now Varnedoe is spending her holiday season battling the same illness that’s overwhelmed doctors and nurses and forever changed the lives of millions of Americans.

Paul Varnedoe said his wife was released Saturday and is “slowly getting better.”

A teacher at Mount Bethel Elementary School, Varnedoe is the fourth known Cobb educator hospitalized with COVID-19, including art teacher Patrick Key who died on Christmas Day.

Despite the illnesses, the Cobb County School District has not announced any plans to change its mix of in-person and remote learning for students.

Julia Varnedoe began feeling sick earlier this month and took a COVID-19 test on Dec. 16. After her test came back positive, she was given some medication and sent home to recover. However, after about four days, her breathing worsened and she was taken to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital.

Her husband said now she’s back home and working on rebuilding her lung strength. He and his youngest daughter, an Auburn University student, have also contracted the virus, but were not as sick.

“It’s been a cloud hanging over the house here,” he said.

Varnedoe, who works from home, said he believes his wife contracted COVID-19 at school because the family has worked to limit their exposure outside of work. Varnedoe also said his wife is a breast cancer survivor, so she was extra vigilant about taking precautions due to her compromised immune system.

Earlier this year, Julia Varnedoe began working with Georgia Tech to help make masks for medics when N95s were scarcely available. She made more than 1,000 masks that were distributed to hospitals in the Atlanta area and south Georgia, Varnedoe said.

“It’s a shame that she is fighting this now after helping so many people in the spring,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Cobb County educators particularly hard. Key, who taught at Hendricks Elementary School, died Christmas Day following a lengthy battle with COVID. According to his obituary, Key, 53, taught for 23 years in the Cobb school district and for 20 years as a Continuing Education Summer Camp instructor at Kennesaw State University. His family will hold a private funeral service.

Dana Johnson, a Kemp Elementary School first-grade teacher, is in the intensive care unit at WellStar Paulding Hospital after she was admitted on Dec. 6. According to a GoFundMe page created to help her family with medical expenses, Johnson was placed on a ventilator on Christmas Eve. Jacob Furse, a Garrett Middle School chorus and drama teacher, was hospitalized for a week at WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s unit reserved for COVID patients. Jacob was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve and continues to recover at home.

Cobb school district social worker Petrina Fowler is also hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia, according to a GoFundMe page created to help her family. Fowler, who in 2016 was named the district’s Social Worker of the Year, tried to recover at home, but was admitted to the hospital on Dec. 23, said Lindsay Terrebonne, who created the page.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale in an email sent Christmas Day acknowledged Key’s death and said his “positive impact” on Hendricks Elementary School students “has been known for years.” Ragsdale also he’s encouraged by the “commitment our entire staff has made to our students, and I remain confident that we will beat COVID-19 as a team and as a county.”

Since the pandemic upended school district operations, Ragsdale said the system has made decisions based on student and staff safety, public health guidance and the ability for parents to choose the best atmosphere in which their children will learn.

“We need each of you as a member of our one team to keep us aligned with those priorities,” he said.

Cobb school board member Dr. Jaha Howard said he’s heartbroken about Key’s death and the number of educators who are fighting COVID-19. Howard said he’d like to see the school district roll out more on-site testing, add more personnel to handle contact tracing and be more consistent about the standard practices of wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distancing.

When students return to class for spring semester on Jan. 6, Howard said the district should consider delaying reopening schools for in-person learning.

“Someone should not have to die for us to move our feet with a greater sense of urgency,” he said.