Local 1522 Remembers Beloved School Employee Felled by COVID

408,697 and 6,819.

Those figures represent (as of Jan. 23, 2021) the number of people who have died from COVID-19, nationwide and in Connecticut, since the deadly virus struck last year.

The statistics are staggering and mind-numbing. It’s only when we attach faces to the numbers that we can begin to understand the devastating impact of this pandemic. 

Eleanor DeShields of AFSCME Local 1522 (Bridgeport Board of Education/City) was one of those faces. The veteran paraprofessional at Wilbur Cross Elementary in Bridgeport died from COVID-19 on Dec. 10. She was 68.

“Ms. DeShields was a beautiful person with dignity and pride,” said fellow paraprofessional and best friend Valerie Price. “She gave the kids joy. She had a heart of gold.”

Price and her co-workers – paras and teachers alike – are determined to keep Ms. DeShields’ memory alive and to remind people that her life mattered.

“We want Ms. DeShields’ voice to be heard,” Price said. “We don’t want her to be forgotten. We want people to know what COVID is and what it has done to us. How we’re still going to school and helping the kids, not knowing if we’re safe.”

DeShields’ death inspired staff to share their recollections of a person who performed her duties with professionalism and a profound love for the students she mentored.

Kara Moore, a teacher at Wilbur Cross, shared this reflection as part of a collection of remembrances gathered by Mia Dimbo, a teacher and close friend of Eleanor’s:

“Ms. DeShields easily made connections with some of the toughest kids, getting them to crack smiles with ease. One day, a new student responded to Ms. DeShields disrespectfully and before I could even address it, other students in the class were telling him, 'That's Ms. DeShields. We love her and we don't treat her that way." The student later found her and apologized and soon was one of the students who always wanted to talk to her and be around her. It was amazing to see how much everyone respected and loved her.”

Fellow paraprofessional and Local 1522 member Leondra James Harris offered this:

“[Eleanor] not only was an educator, she became that mother figure to all the children she came in contact with. She would feed children; she even bought students uniforms…She had such a unique way of helping children learn, as well. She would create her own trivia questions and pass them out to the students and had them research the answers. After completing the tasks they felt great pride within themselves. This was a gift she had. She would bring the best out in all the children.”

And this from Mia Dimbo:

“She was a woman of truth with an aspiring soul who everyone loved and respected. Ms. Deshields was always willing to share her knowledge of  history and all the students couldn't wait to hear and be involved in all the wonderful history assignments she did with the students. I will miss my phenomenal friend who definitely made a difference in all of our lives. [I]f we all could strive to be as half as good as her, the world would be a better place to live.”

Price, Dimbo, Harris and many others are not simply grieving over the loss of a beloved colleague. They are angry because COVID-19 continues its scorched-earth impact on people, especially those of color.

And they’re rip-roaring upset that the state and the school district have not put in place the strong safety protocols advocated by a coalition of unions including Local 1522 and Council 4. Adherence to the union coalition’s safety principles might have prevented Eleanor’s death.

“COVID is doing damage not just to people of color but to the entire [school] system—teachers, paraprofessionals and all the staff who work in these buildings and who aren’t safe,” Price related. “To have COVID rampant in our schools due to neglect is putting people in jeopardy.”

Although Ms. DeShields’ passing was barely noted by school administration or the Superintendent or the school board, those whose lives she touched will carry on her legacy.

“Eleanor adored all the children she worked with, and looked upon her time with them as a gift,” Local 1522 President Sherrie Weller said. “She was truly loved by all those blessed to know her, and she reciprocated that love tenfold. May we all remember and honor Eleanor by staying vigilant, and keeping our own safety and the safety of everyone around us foremost in our minds and actions.”

Price offered this most poignant of calls to action: “The children are devastated. They won’t see the woman they knew and loved every day. People need to know her name: Eleanor DeShields.”