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An Amphitheater School District teacher recovering from COVID-19 is sharing her ongoing experience ahead of Gov. Doug Ducey’s upcoming announcement regarding how Arizona schools will proceed this fall. 

What started out as an impromptu goodbye party has turned into a nightmare that doesn’t seem to end for Innovation Academy math teacher Niki Bolze Tilicki, who has written a journal recounting her harrowing experience. (Find excerpts as well as a link to the entire journal at tucsonlocalmedia.com.)

Her husband, who is also a teacher in the Amphi District, recently accepted a teaching position in Marana. A few of his colleagues wanted to give him a send-off after Gov. Ducey lifted his stay-at-home executive order on May 15. 

“I stayed home the entire time because I knew having asthma that I couldn’t get COVID,” Tilicki said. “When we opened up Arizona my family started to feel a little safer. 

My husband accepted a job, a few friends wanted to stop by. When they took a group picture together I felt like I could see the moment it happened.”

Tilicki’s husband was the first to show symptoms mid-June. Then a couple of days later, she woke with a dry cough and no energy—the most common symptoms of coronavirus. The 51-year-old began calling the few people her family had been in contact with. Sure enough, one of the teachers at the going-away party was diagnosed with the virus. 

“I was totally disappointed in myself,” Tilicki said. “How could I let a gathering, even though we social distanced, how could I do that? How could I let my guard down? I’m not mad at a single person except for myself.”

Tilicki’s family got tested for COVID-19 immediately after receiving the news. About 10 days later, the test results were in—her husband and two college-age children, now living at home while campus is closed, tested negative. Tilicki tested positive. 

“After our exposure and before getting tested I went to the gym because the gym opened up,” Tilicki said. “I went to Starbucks. I hung out with friends but I wore a mask. In my head, I thought I was being careful.” 

By late June, Tilicki’s condition progressed as she began to cough up blood while having a high fever and now was prone to spells of dizziness. Tilicki thought she was on the mend a few days later after her fever subsided, but the asthmatic still had trouble breathing. Her 23-year-old son urged Tilicki to go to the hospital and get checked out. Doctors soon diagnosed Tilicki with pneumonia—a common infection caused by coronavirus. 

“I was starting to feel better and my son came in and said ‘You’re not better, Mom. You need to get to a hospital’,” Tilicki said. “I think he saved me. What would have happened if I left my pneumonia untreated?”

While she is no longer coughing up blood or has a fever, Tilicki is still fighting pneumonia and other symptoms of COVID-19 more than six weeks after being diagnosed. Her doctor said the continued dizziness is likely due to low blood pressure. She instructed Tilicki to get to the emergency room if her condition worsens. 

“(The doctor) said it’s going to be a long road for me,” Tilicki said. “COVID is a lengthy recovery. She’s glad I’m not in the hospital but she said she is worried about me.”

Recently the math teacher attempted to tutor her students online, but what was once a second-nature passion now leaves Tilicki exhausted and dizzy. 

“My whole head feels terrible. I can’t think straight,” Tilicki said. “I don’t think I can do math at certain moments and I’m a math teacher. I’ve got to get well before that.” 

Tilicki said she is very concerned with the possibility of Arizona schools reopening in the fall due to the potential of COVID-19 related fatalities. Without a vaccine or a less community spread, the educator believes it would be a mistake to reopen schools to in-class learning at this time—even with the updated measures schools are taking.

“I don’t think kids or anybody should return until it’s safe. I believe one death is too many and the bottom line is we need to be safe before we return,” Tilicki said. “Absolutely nothing makes me want to go to work and potentially go to someone’s funeral.”

Tilicki said while she believes online learning is the best way to keep kids safe during the pandemic, she understands there are many parents who don’t have the option to keep their kids at home during the school year. She suggests only opening schools to children of first responders and parents who are unable to obtain childcare. 

“We can’t be afraid,” Tilicki said. “Children still need to learn, just differently. I think we need to look at what other people have done successfully. I’ve been to three parents’ funerals and one student’s funeral in my past and I don’t want to go to another one when we could avoid it.”

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