Darla Arends had about 500 kids and two cats.
A Charles City High School special education teacher for 25 years, Arends died on Friday from COVID-19 complications at the age of 58 at MercyOne in Mason City. She was first diagnosed with the virus in September, and it was the one ailment in her life that she couldn’t overcome.
“She always joked with me that she was born with a disability, but she never thought of herself as handicapped,” said CCHS Associate Principal Larry Wolfe.
“Anything her kids were going through, she’d already gone through. She overcame so many struggles in her life, and she never let her disability be a crutch.”
The Charles City School District Board of Directors held a moment of silence in memory of Arends at Monday’s meeting. Charles City Superintendent Mike Fisher called her a “beloved friend and family member.”
“Our hearts are breaking, our family is grieving, and her family is grieving,” Fisher said. “It’s an exceptionally difficult time for our school and our community.”
Fisher said that all of Arends’ students had been called personally.
Arends was one of six children in her family, and her younger brother, Carl Arends, said that Darla had survived two open heart surgeries and had one kidney, which COVID-19 shut down. He said that once she was placed on a ventilator, she was never awake for more than a couple of hours at a time.
“We thought that she was getting better, and then all of the sudden, it just got worse,” Carl said. “It really wasn’t something we were expecting.”
Carl said that his sister had a physical disability that hampered her mobility, but she refused to call herself handicapped.
“It broke her heart when she had to get a handicapped sticker on her car,” he said. “She did not consider herself disabled. She always said that if she could walk and move, she wasn’t disabled.”
Carl said that Arends insisted on becoming a teacher, and that she wanted to teach children with disabilities.
“She always said that you can’t teach these kids on a computer, you have to be there physically,” Carl said. “She loved what she did and always tried to do what anyone told her she couldn’t do.”
CCHS Principal Bryan Jurrens said that Arends’ passing was a devastating loss for Charles City.
“She was a very seasoned teacher, very caring and very nurturing,” Jurrens said. “She knew what she was put on this world to do, and that was to teach, and that was her family.”
Before coming to Charles City, Arends taught in Forest City, and Carl said that while there, she actually adopted one of her students who needed care and became a co-guardian to him, and she cared for him the entire time he was in a mental health institution.
Wolfe estimated that Arends had taught more than 500 individual special education students over the years in Charles City.
“If you break it down, that means she’s impacted over 500 families,” Wolfe said. “She had those students for multiple years, and she treated every student who walked into her classroom as if they were her sons or daughters.”
Born in 1962 in Iowa City, Arends grew up in Zearing where she attended school. She graduated with the NESCO class of 1983. She went to the University of Iowa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
Along with the 500-plus students she taught, Arends also left behind two cats she considered her babies.
“Any cats that were around our house when we were growing up were her cats,” her brother said. “They were no one else’s, they were hers.”
Carl said that a Charles City teacher and a staff member have been checking in on her cats and taking care of their needs since Arends was first hospitalized. He and his wife tended to the cats on weekends.
“The teachers at Charles City High School are just amazing,” Carl said. “She was so fortunate to work with such kind people.”
Jurrens said it might be the other way around — Charles City was fortunate to work with Arends.
“We’re definitely going to miss Darla,” he said. “She wasn’t afraid to ask questions and wasn’t afraid to do what was right, and those are the kind of people you like having around.”
Wolfe agreed, and said that Arends set a great example for every teacher in the district.
“Darla was more than a quality teacher and a quality mentor, she was the epitome of what is right for kids,” he said. “She was never defined by a contract or sundial — she was here as early as she needed to be, she stayed as late as she needed to stay, and worked as long as she needed to work.”
Wolfe read an email he had received from a CCHS graduate and one of Arends’ former students.
“She was my favorite teacher in school,” the email said. “She chewed my butt every time I deserved it, and that was many times. It hurts my heart to know she passed away.”
Wolfe called Arends “a great friend,” and said she was instrumental in creating a team teaching approach at the high school.
“She spoke from the heart, and she spoke honestly, and she expected everyone around her — and that includes both kids and staff — to work just as hard as she did,” Wolfe said.
The school district is providing additional support for teachers and staff this week, and said that student counseling support services will be available.
According to the Iowa COVID-19 Tracker website, there have been eight COVID-19-related deaths of school district employees in the state of Iowa since the start of the school year, in Iowa City Regina, West Des Moines, Dowling Catholic, Sioux City, Southeast Polk, Chariton, Knoxville/Pella and now Charles City.
Anyone who would like their child to visit with a counselor is asked to call the school office at 641-257-6510 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to current limitations on face-to-face contact, the school will also offer tele-health support via teleconferencing.
The school said that it is anticipating students and staff to react in a variety of different ways, and is expecting a variety of emotions and behaviors in reaction to the loss.
Visitation for Arends will be today, Tuesday, Nov. 10, from 5-7 p.m. at the Fredregill Family Funeral Home in Zearing, Iowa. Funeral services are Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. at the Zearing Christian Church.
“Every time we reflect on a moment with her, and every time we shed a tear for, our broken hearts are going to heal a little,” Wolfe said. “That healing is going to take a long time, because of the impact she had on our district.”