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'Heaven gained an All-Star today': River City Science Academy teacher dies from COVID-19

Nicole Hollis, a third-grade teacher at River City Science Academy's Mandarin campus, died Saturday. She was 39.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Another Duval County teacher died from COVID-19 within the first week of school, though she had never returned to her classroom. 

Nicole Hollis, a third-grade teacher at River City Science Academy's Mandarin campus, died Saturday. She was 39. 

"We are heartbroken," her husband of 14 years, Dustin Hollis, wrote on Facebook. "She never met a person she didn’t like, she had the most beautiful contagious smile. She was the most genuine and sweetest person that walked this earth. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. She was the perfect mom!" 

According to her mother, Laurinda Kopf, Nicole was hospitalized battling COVID-19 and pneumonia for weeks. It's unclear whether Hollis was vaccinated or not. Statistically, people who are vaccinated are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.

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River City Science Academy released a statement following Nicole's death: 

“It is with deep sadness to inform you that we lost Mrs. Nicole Hollis yesterday. We have lost [a] 3rd grade teacher, team leader, best friend, valued colleague, and wonderful mother of two children in our school. Mrs. Hollis fought in [the] hospital since early July. Our grief and confusion at this time are little compared to what Hollis’ family must be feeling. Our hearts and prayers go out to them.”

"My heart hurts but this makes me smile that her legacy will live on through these kids' lives," Dustin said in response to older photos of Nicole teaching and hugging students circulating online. 

Three COVID-19 school employee deaths in Duval County

Nicole was entering her sixth year teaching at River City Science Academy and in total, she taught across Jacksonville and Vero Beach for 12 years, family said. She was a 2000 graduate of Martin County High School, according to her obituary.

The school said it would have grief counselors and support staff available Monday. 

This is at least the third COVID-19 related school employee death in Jacksonville that occurred during the first week of school, though they are not being formally tracked by Duval County Public Schools. 

River City Science Academy, a charter school, does not publish how many COVID-19 cases are impacting students or faculty. In an email to families, the school said its number of positive coronavirus cases was 0.2 percent. 

According to Duval County Public Schools, there are 82 confirmed cases at district schools to date — a significantly higher number of coronavirus infections compared to this time last year. 

Mobeen Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at UF Health Jacksonville and at Wolfson, said the numbers are inevitably higher than the school district's records. 

"Eighty-two new coronavirus cases [at] Duval Schools the first week is definitely an undercount," Rathore tweeted over the weekend. "Parents be aware your child may be infected." 

Across the board, Hollis was praised as a loving, nurturing teacher, co-worker, friend and mother. 

"She was my son's teacher this past year," a mother wrote on Facebook. "She was so patient with me and him. She was always available whenever I reached out and truly did everything she could to help ... An amazing teacher, I’m sure she was amazing all around. Her students loved her." 

Nikki Kimbleton, the city of Jacksonville's director of communications, posted about Hollis on her Facebook page.

"She was beautiful, young, brilliant and beloved," Kimbleton said. "All of my love and prayers for her family, her children, her friends and her students."

Former students' families thanked Hollis for her work with their children over the years on social media as well as a GoFundMe established by the family to help with expenses (gofund.me/95a105e5).

She is survived by her husband, their daughter, Olivia, their son, Brantley, her parents Laurinda and Erik Kopf, and additional family and friends.

"Heaven gained an All-Star today," Dustin Hollis said on Saturday. "She was the most amazing woman I ever met. Thank you Nicole for the short time I got to share life with you. I am such a better person because of it."

Emily Bloch is an education reporter for The Florida Times-Union. Follow her on Twitter or email her.

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