In the midst of uncertain pandemic times, parents of about 13 percent of students in Department of Defense Education Activity schools have chosen to enroll their children in the virtual option, school officials said.

About 9,000 students out of the projected 69,000 student enrollment will attend virtual school in the fall, said Will Griffin, a spokesman for DoDEA. Students enrolled in the virtual option commit to at least one semester, but can transition to attending classes in person at the beginning of the second semester if their installation is in Health Protection Condition A or B, Griffin said.

Those estimated 69,000 students attend 160 schools in 11 countries. There are DoDEA schools at 13 bases in seven states in the continental U.S.. An estimated 8,700 educators work throughout DoDEA.

Officials are still working on further analysis of the data, but there are increased virtual enrollments in some communities that are still in HPCON C, with substantial sustained community transmission of COVID-19, Griffin said. Any DoDEA schools that are located on installations under HPCON C will start the school year using remote learning with their brick-and-mortar classroom teacher for all students.

Union leaders, citing health and safety concerns, had urged DoDEA parents to choose the virtual school option if DoDEA didn’t decide to do remote-only openings at all its schools.

Parents of DoDEA students had until July 28 to sign up for the virtual school option for their child, then DoDEA officials extended that deadline to July 30. Officials needed a cutoff date to allow enough time to ensure there’s enough staffing and resources for the virtual school, and those resources are in place before the start of classes on Aug. 24, Griffin said.

Parents weren’t asked to provide any justification for their selection of a virtual school option, so officials don’t know if students had an underlying health condition, he said.

In an announcement last month about the reopening plans, DoDEA Director Tom Brady said the preferred option is for students to learn in the physical setting, but schools “will remain flexible and prepared for any contingency.” Officials also provided parents the option to enroll in virtual school.

Parents who selected the virtual option for their students filled out a virtual learning request form, Griffin said. Asked if parents had to affirmatively choose one option or the other, he said parents go through a ‘registration’ or ‘re-registration’ process every year to some degree. “With the highly transient nature of military-connected students, this ensures our student information is correct and up to date,” Griffin said.

Information was not immediately available about how many students were enrolled in the DoDEA virtual school in the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic. Previously, the majority of virtual school students were also enrolled in physical schools, and were taking virtual classes that they couldn’t attend at their regular school because of scheduling or availability, Griffin said.

The virtual school is different from remote learning. DoDEA has long had a fully accredited virtual high school, for grades 9 to 12. DoDEA high school students all over the world have taken classes with teachers who themselves are in a variety of locations. The school system is expanding the virtual school to include elementary grades K to 5, and middle school grades 6 to 8.

Remote learning, which is what most students were doing this spring, happens if local COVID-19 infections escalate and the installation goes to HPCON C. The remote learning involves students staying at home and continuing their learning with their local classroom teacher.

Teachers unions representing DoDEA teachers are concerned about the health and safety of teachers, students and parents. Those unions have been asking DoDEA questions about the precautions they’re taking regarding cleaning and other health and safety precautions, “and we’re not getting answers that make us feel comfortable they have a coherent and well-thought-out plan,” said Gary Hritz, spokesman for the Federal Education Association.

“We still firmly believe a remote opening is the best plan,” Hritz said.

DoDEA officials have outlined guidance for health and safety precautions regarding classrooms, corridors and common areas, cafeterias, buses, playgrounds and large group events at schools on installations under Health Protection conditions Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, in a publication called “Ensuring a Safe and Healthy Return to School.”

“The health and safety of our students and employees remains a top priority and has been a primary consideration throughout the planning and preparation for a safe return to school,” DoDEA’s Griffin said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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