Cynthia Ritz believed in the transcendent power of education, constantly encouraging her students and her two sons to pursue college degrees, while always learning new skills to teach in the classroom, like computer programming and robotics.
Edgewood Independent School District’s Teacher of the Year for 2019-20, Ritz was reluctant to return to the classroom this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic because she had asthma, said son Samuel Morales. She had left Wrenn Middle School, where she had taught for 17 years, for Gus Garcia University School this school year, teaching student wellness and nutrition at the middle school. Garcia is an in-district charter school operated in partnership with Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
“She very much believed in getting a good education and that a good education can make all the difference. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to be a teacher,” Morales said. “She loved it, and again that stems from her loving to be around people, loving to help people. She wanted to give people chances.”
Over the winter holiday break, Ritz began feeling ill and tested positive for the novel coronavirus. She died in the hospital Jan. 18 from COVID-19 complications. Friends, family members, and colleagues will remember her at funeral services Friday.
Ritz’ death received widespread social media attention when North East ISD literacy specialist Careese LaRoque’s tweet about her former coworker’s death went viral, with celebrities Jane Lynch and Marianne Williamson expressing support and concern for teachers. LaRoque said she sent that tweet because the fear she and other educators feel every day at work hit a tipping point. Many thanked her for speaking out.
Ritz, who was 47, taught for 18 years in Edgewood ISD. The district provided additional counselors for students and staff after her death, calling Ritz a “valued and beloved member of Edgewood ISD.”
“We are deeply saddened to hear of her passing,” the district said in a prepared statement. “We offer our prayers and condolences to her family. Ms. Cynthia Ritz will be greatly missed!”
Wrenn Middle School Principal Timothy Vaughn already misses Ritz. They worked together for a little over a year. He recalled one of his first days as principal at the middle school when Ritz and another longtime Wrenn teacher had pulled him aside.
“She said, ‘We got to talk, young man.’ They came in my office, and boy, they got together and they tightened me up real good,” Vaughn remembered with a laugh. “She wanted Wrenn to be excellent, and she was just trying to nurture me in a way that gave me an understanding of the culture and an overall view of what the campus needs. That’s how much she loves Wrenn.
“I really respect that because as a leader you have to listen and be humble. You have angels on the campus, and she was one of those angels who was trying to prepare me for things that I could not see ahead of me.”
Vaughn also remembered Ritz as a “beautiful person” who always pushed her students to reach a “high mark of excellence.” He said he also will always remember her as a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, like him.
For Morales, his mother’s eagerness to learn computer programming served as his inspiration to pursue a major in business with a specialization in cybersecurity at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
“I always am and always will be a big mama’s boy, and she was my best friend,” he said.
A few days after New Year’s Eve, Ritz started feeling sick and coughing, but she thought it was allergies, Morales said. To be safe, she stayed home from work and got tested for COVID-19 on Jan. 4. Her positive test results came back two days later, and Morales, his 19-year-old brother, and his father, Gilbert Lopez, all began quarantining. Morales and his father later tested positive.
Ritz’ condition worsened over the next two weeks. She had a fever and difficulty breathing at times, Morales said. She went to the hospital twice to get treatment for difficulty breathing. She received some steroids before being discharged, her son said, but she returned the next night and was given oxygen.
Just after midnight on Jan. 18, Lopez got a call from the hospital that Ritz had died. Morales’ voice broke as he recalled going to wake up his younger brother, Xavier, to tell him the news.
Morales deeply regrets that he didn’t get to say goodbye. He texted his mother every day she was in the hospital with words of encouragement.
“It’s a very sobering thing, this virus,” Morales said. “I know a lot of people think it’s like the cold or something, and it’s very bad because we don’t really know how it will affect any of us. … It hits everyone differently.”
It’s unclear how Ritz contracted COVID-19. Morales said he and his family were always careful. They wore masks everywhere and kept hand sanitizer at the ready.
“I know she’s always going to be with me,” Morales said. “I know I’ll see her again someday. I’m truly, truly blessed to have been her son.”
A GoFundMe for Ritz’s funeral and family had raised $5,155 as of Thursday afternoon.