A Denver high school student known for her smile has died of COVID-19

When Jaqueline Paisano would go to the mall with her mom, she was stopped often by classmates.

“Teenage boys and girls that I never knew would stop us and say ‘Oh, I love Jackie,’” mom Roxanne Paisano said. “It felt so nice because even though she couldn’t talk, I knew that with her smile she could make the world fall in love with her.”

Her smile is what people say they will remember the most.

Jaqueline Paisano, who everyone knew as Jackie, died of COVID-19 complications Monday night. She would have been 17 next month. She is one of the youngest people in Colorado to die from the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Mom was by her bedside when it happened. She kissed her, hugged her and sang her favorite song to let her know it was OK to let go. Now, Roxanne Paisano said the pain is complicated by loneliness as she and Jackie’s 15-year-old sister, and dad, are grieving at home alone. Jackie’s 20-year-old brother, who lives on his own, is staying in his own home.

The current environment also changed things for Jackie’s classmates. As school buildings remain closed for the rest of the school year, staff at her Denver school, George Washington High School, are simultaneously grieving, while looking for new ways to support Jackie’s family, her classmates and the larger school community.

Upon hearing the news of Jackie’s death, Principal Kristin Waters began planning. The school sent out a message to the community early in the morning. Kristy Bates, Jackie’s teacher in the school’s program for students with special needs, personally reached out to the families of all of Jackie’s classmates, to help parents think through how they would tell their children, her classmates.

Several other teachers and staff also spent the morning reaching out to other students in the school who knew Jackie well and who may need help. Waters said district mental health teams are also helping.

One challenge is that because of privacy concerns, Waters said the school was advised that they could not have a virtual grief session that included students who don’t know each other. So teams will still host the Google hangout sessions Wednesday and Thursday, but those who log in will get directed to one-on-one sessions where they can talk.

For any students or staff members who want to share a memory of Jackie, the school is also gathering those memories to put together and share with her family. And the school has scheduled virtual support meetings for staff, through the district’s employee assistance program. Not a lot of people joined the first one today, Waters said.

She said there is some concern that being in remote learning might make it difficult to reach some students or staff.

“I know there are also others that this will hit that we don’t know about and that’s the importance of having grief sessions set up,” Waters said. “But it’s definitely different. If we were at school and something like this happened teachers would be able to drop in and talk.”

Omisola Ari, the school nurse, said she regularly worked with Jackie and felt personally devastated after hearing the news.

“She was an achingly sweet, curious, and delightful girl who always had a smile on her face,” Ari said.

Roxanne said Jaqueline loved going to school. Often she was awake by 4 a.m. and would yank on mom’s hair or pinch her to get her to wake up so she could get ready for school.

She also loved music and dancing. Despite being in a wheelchair, Jackie was able to move her left foot and tapped along to music as others danced around her.

“She brought so much joy to everyone around her,” her mom said.

Jackie was thriving the most in the last two years of her life, as a student at George Washington.

Starting when she was 18 months old, she developed severe seizures due to a brain tumor and lost the ability to walk and talk. Much of her younger life was spent in hospitals. In middle school, her medicine kept her mostly asleep. It was just before she started high school that her medications were adjusted so she could be awake and alert at school.

Last year she was able to participate in training program designed for people with serious disabilities who may not be able to join the other sports offered by Special Olympics. She was featured in a 2019 ESPN video about inclusion through physical activity.

In a poem she wrote in response to the prompt “I am” and shared with an arts collaborative, she described how she wished to be known for her full self, not only her disability.

I am sassy and strong.
I dream about doing things with my family.
I hope to always be included.
I am sassy and strong.
I am a person and more than my disability.

“For someone so young, she lived through so much,” Waters said. “But she brought so much joy to everyone around her.”

Looking back on the day, Waters said she doesn’t know that there is a way that other schools might prepare for a similar situation, but she advises that school leaders take advantage of all of their school and district resources, rather than trying to manage on their own.

“This whole experience has just really changed my perspective on what’s important at school — it’s the people,” Waters said. “We always say that’s what’s important, but this really puts it in perspective.”

Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.