Dez-Ann Romain, principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy.
Brooklyn Democracy Academy/Instagram
March 25, 2020

When you graduated from Dez-Ann Romain’s class, she didn’t leave your life. She became your friend, multiple former students tell TIME.

“She supported us through all our future endeavors, whether it [was] personal or professional,” Curtis Turney-Rentas, 27, tells TIME in a Facebook message. Romain taught Turney-Rentas high school art at the Frederick Douglass Academy VI in Queens, New York. “But she didn’t just teach us art. She taught us how to become men and women. She taught us how to be leaders in our own light,” he says.

Romain died from complications related to coronavirus, city officials confirmed Monday evening. She was 36 years old, and had most recently worked as the principal of Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a transfer high school that aims to help students who have struggled in traditional high school settings graduate and move onto postsecondary education or employment.

Romain was the first known New York public school staff member to have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, according to Chalkbeat, a news site that reports on education. The New York Times reports that 48-year-old Ronda Phillips, the principal at Kappa V High School (which uses the same building as Brooklyn Democracy Academy), has also been hospitalized. Brooklyn Democracy Academy did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment on guidance provided to students regarding their potential exposure to the coronavirus.

As of March 25, New York state had at least 26,376 cases of COVID-19 — nearly half of the 55,243 confirmed cases across the U.S., according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University. Per the tracker, at least 271 people have died in New York state; according to The Times, only five people under the age of 45 in New York City have died from complications related to the virus.

“Her work was dedicated to uplifting students at a transfer high school in Brownsville, one of our borough’s most underserved communities,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams says in a statement provided to TIME. “Too many in our society have written off the young scholars under her stewardship, but where others saw problems she saw promise and potential…. The loss of Principal Romain is particularly painful for the Brooklyn Democracy Academy family, our larger public school community, and a borough grateful for her service.”

“I extend my deepest condolences to the Brooklyn Democracy Academy community, and the family of Principal Romain,” Richard Carranza, the chancellor of New York City schools, tweeted Monday night. “We’re all experiencing a deep sense of confusion, uncertainty, and sadness, and it’s more important than ever to provide support to one another. We’ll be there for the students and staff through whatever means necessary during this impossibly difficult time.”

New York Governor Cuomo has ordered 100% of the state’s workforce — except those deemed essential — stay home in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus. New York City public schools closed to students and staff on March 15, and on Monday began a new remote-learning program. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that he thinks it’s unlikely that schools will reopen before the end of the school year.

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In-person vigils and other community gatherings, which are usually crucial support systems in times of grief, have been made near impossible by the virus. On Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., Adams will hold a digital vigil for Romain over the video conferencing platform Zoom.

Many have also taken to social media to mourn Romain. On Tuesday, Brittany Aguilera, who identified herself as Romain’s cousin, wrote on Facebook, “I used to sit on the bed with her as she drew these beautiful things and she gave me paper and pencil and pushed me to do the same without any judgement, until I got better and better, and we would sit there for hours in silence just drawing.”

“One day, when I have a kid I’ll show them how to draw the way you showed me. And I’ll pick back up the paper and pencil again, just for you. You will be missed and you were loved and respected,” she continued.

Aguilera did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

“SHOUT OUT with love and admiration for Ms Romain!” Janice Lawrence-Clarke wrote on Facebook, alongside a video of Romain walking a makeshift catwalk at a school event last year.

“She had a huge heart. She loved her kids, she loved to teach,” Tia Brunner, 30, tells TIME. Brunner was also a student in Romain’s high school art class at Frederick Douglass Academy VI. “She made us feel like family. I felt like one of her sisters… she was just that loving and great at what she did.”

Brunner, now a teacher assistant herself, said she had remained friends with Romain after she graduated, and had celebrated her birthday with Romain just a few weeks ago on March 1. “She was amazing and beautiful, inside and out.”

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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