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Special education aid in Phoenix dies after COVID-19 diagnosis

Arizona teachers and students continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 as cases surge across the state.

PHOENIX — COVID-19 cases continue to surge across Arizona, with more than 2,100 more cases and 28 deaths reported Thursday morning by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The Madison Elementary School District in Phoenix is mourning the loss of their beloved special education assistant, Nawai Kalai, who had recently tested positive for the virus.

“It comes in waves of whether it’s real or not,” said friend Hailey MacCallum.

Madison Unified School Officials sent this letter to families on Tuesday:

November 3, 2020,

Dear Madison Families,

It is with a heavy heart that we share that our beloved staff member, Nawai Kalai, passed away this week.

Nawai worked in the Special Education Department as a Behavior Technician and was on many of our campuses. Nawai was a gentle and kind soul who worked tirelessly to ensure our students with special needs received a lot of love and attention.

While we do not have any information about the cause of death or funeral arrangements at this time, we want to extend our deepest sympathies out to his family and notify our community of this tremendous loss.

In ordinary circumstances, we do not share this type of information with all of our families. However, we understand that during this unprecedented time it is important to prioritize communication with all Madison families. We will continue to work diligently to serve and support our Madison community.

Our social workers and counselors are available to assist students or staff that have been affected by this news.

We recognize that a death of an adult in your child’s life, especially one he or she may see every day, may evoke certain reactions. You may find that your child expresses concern about the health and safety of themselves or others around them, or even demonstrate behavioral signs of grief such as crying, fatigue, depression, and anxiety. It is important to listen to your child and encourage them to share his or her feelings if he or she is having difficulty coping with the loss.

We thank you for your support. If you have questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to call or email us. 

Sincerely,

Madison School District

Madison School District Behavior Specialist Jaimie Michaels released this statement to 12 News. 

What Nawai meant to students and the Madison community:  

"Nawai was an employee who loved the students and staff he worked with.  He took time to get to know the students and build a great relationship and foundation of trust to help them build upon their skills and abilities.  Students would smile and laugh when Nawai was working with them.  During the school closure in the spring of 2020, Nawai kept in contact with many of the students he worked with.  He would have video meets with those students where he would sing to them (one favorite was singing You're Welcome from Moana), read them books, play along as characters that students wanted to mimic, and continue to encourage the positive behaviors they had been working on when in person.  To the staff, Nawai was someone they could reach out to to ask questions and support with difficult behaviors.  He didn't just come into a situation and "fix it" but would teach those he was working with the skills needed to build upon their own ability to assess and manage a difficult situation.  He taught paraprofessional staff how to utilize different teaching concepts to build upon their skills.  He was someone who was reliable and dependable and was always willing to do anything asked of him.  His personality was infectious and everyone who worked with him was laughing or smiling because he was always telling jokes, talking about the latest shoes he was on the hunt for, or the new stickers he made on his wife's cricut.  Nawai is someone whose absence will truly be felt in our community."

Kawai is originally from Oahu, Hawaii. He was passionate about music and played and sang a mix of RnB and Soul songs. He and Hailey met while he was playing a gig at a Valley coffee shop. “You could just tell how kind and caring and loving and how much he loved and enjoyed music and enjoyed and performing for people the songs they liked to hear,” said Hailey.  

Nawai is the latest educator to lose his life after contracting COVID-19. School districts have been hit hard by COVID-19 since teachers and students returned to the classroom with outbreaks now in more than 60 schools.  

“He would tell stories about his students and I feel for them. I feel like that community has lost somebody very special,”  said MacCallum.  

University of Arizona College of Medicine Public Health Director and physician Dr. Shad Marvasti says school officials need to think about the impact the virus could have on schools as Arizona enters the holidays and influenza season. “I think we are very close to make that call to going completely virtual," said Dr. Shad.    

COVID-19 Surging Across Arizona: 

Since October 1, coronavirus metrics are trending the wrong direction. 

  • 7-day average of cases - 226% (Highest since Aug. 7)
  • 7-day average of deaths - 45% (Highest since Sept. 28)
  • Usage of ICU beds by COVID-19 patients - 93% (Highest since Sept. 6)
  • Usage of Inpatient beds by COVID-19 patients - 82% (Highest since Aug. 20)
  • Usage of ventilators by COVID-19 patients - 27% (Highest since Sept. 7)

Health experts continue to stress staying vigilant as we get closer to the holidays. A GoFundMe account has been set up to help Nawai's wife Denise. 

Credit: 12 News