PLANT CITY — A Plant City High School science teacher, who spent decades in the classroom and mentored Boy Scouts in his off hours, succumbed Tuesday to complications of COVID-19.
Michael Wanner, 61, is the first known Hillsborough teacher to have died as a result of the coronavirus, but officials said it wasn’t job-related. Wanner, they said, had been away from campus for weeks, after notifying them he had been exposed off campus.
“He was one of the most knowledgable people, across the board, when it came to science,” said fellow science teacher Richard Dorton. “He was constantly trying to raise the skill and knowledge level of his students with every breath that he taught.”
Grief counselors were sent to the school this week to help teachers and students cope with the news.
“Mr. Wanner had a huge impact on the students here at Plant City High School,” principal Susan Sullivan wrote in an email, calling Wanner “a beloved member of our school family.”
Students and fellow teachers described Wanner as upbeat and kind, the consummate science teacher who would stop by on weekends to feed the fish in his classroom aquarium.
Over the years he taught earth space science, forensics and marine science.
“He was like the afficianado,” Dorton said. “He really laid the groundwork, at least out our school, for forensics. He was amazintly skilled when it came to tabletop crime scenes. The complexity that he would do things with was just amazing. He knew his stuff.”
Wanner also enjoyed leatherworking, and had fashioned homemade face masks for protection against the coronavirus.
“He just really devoted his life to bettering children in a really positive way,” said Jennifer Hamilton, an English teacher.
Hamilton, 50, knew Wanner through scouting, long before they became coworkers. Their two sons started out together as Cub Scouts and continued all the way to the rank of Eagle Scout.
Wanner never seemed happier, she said, than on camping trips, where they would cook and tell stories around the campfire. He took pride in the strawberry jam that he and the boys would make and then sell each year for a troop fundraiser. He sold the jam at school as well, Dorton said.
“He was very polite, kind and conscientious," Hamilton said. "He was a gentleman. I like to think he aligned with old fashioned values.”
Rhett Rollyson recalled the time Wanner took to help his son Brandon become an Eagle Scout. “Mike was really instrumental in pushing him to the finish line,” he said.
Logan Dame, a junior at Plant City High, remembered how Wanner would always say hello to anyone he passed in the hallway at school.
“He was just a real sweet dude," Dame said. "There was never a time that I remember him frowning, always a happy dude.”
Compared to some other high schools, Plant City has had a relatively small number of coronavirus cases reported — three employees, 11 students.
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But districtwide, the numbers are climbing. The average weekly case count nearly doubled, from 64 in September to 121 in October.
Hamilton said she asked Wanner, about a month ago and before he became ill, if he was worried about the numbers.
"He said, ‘I fully expect them to go back up because we’re moving into cold and flu season,'” Hamilton said.
“'People just need to be careful,'" he told her. "'They need to wear their masks, they need to be socially distant and take precautions.’ I don’t remember verbatim what was said. He was definitely cautious — but not fearful.”
Information from Bay News 9 was used in this report.