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School via cell phone? Army families prepare for coronavirus siege in Italy

K-12 students at U.S. Army Garrison Italy in Vicenza didn’t get much of a break this week after their schools closed Monday over the expanding coronavirus outbreak in the country.

Teachers have already started uploading mandatory assignments to a dedicated web site, with homework due Monday, March 2.

Families with no Internet access at home? No problem: The base library and some MWR activities with WiFi remain open.

And there are always cell phones.

“The digital platforms we are using are cell phone friendly and pretty much everyone has a cell phone,” said Allison Peltz, principal of Vicenza Elementary School, during a Facebook town hall meeting held Thursday by post officials.

With schools shuttered, worship services canceled and many Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities closed, Army families — and the command — are adapting to what could be a long interruption to daily routines.

While no cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed at the installation, the region where it is located, Veneto, has seen at least 98 cases and two deaths, according to La Repubblica. Thus far, no service members or dependents at Vicenza have been diagnosed with COVID-19, although one is awaiting test results.

With cases increasing across Italy at a rate of 30 percent every 24 hours, base officials aren’t risking exposing U.S. military personnel or their families to the expanding outbreak. This means as military training and operations continue, base facilities, including the theater, bowling leagues, chapel services, fitness centers, child and youth services and schools, are closed.

“We are going to evaluate what we are going to keep closed every single day based on the conditions we see," Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, U.S. Army Africa commanding general, said during the town hall.

"My goal is to get everything opened up as soon as I can, but I’m not going to do that cost of potentially allowing coronavirus into the [command].”

Of greatest concern to Vicenza families based on the town hall questions are school closures and their impact on the school year calendar. Questions about travel in and out of Italy, permanent change of station and separation orders, as well as deployments also have raised anxieties.

Parents have raised concerns about school requirements following closures of Department of Defense Education Activity schools at U.S. Army Garrison Italy in Vicenza.
Parents have raised concerns about school requirements following closures of Department of Defense Education Activity schools at U.S. Army Garrison Italy in Vicenza.

Regarding schools, Peltz said assignments already have been handed down to students, and if schools are closed next week or longer, “classes” will be coordinated over Google Meet or other platform at least twice a week, augmented by continuous homework assignments.

Vicenza school officials are working with local Defense Department IT experts to help families without ready access to computers or those with more than one kid who needs to log-on, school and base officials said.

“We don’t know how long this is going to go. It could go a week, it can go a month it could go longer but what we have to do is we need to develop a process. We know there is going to be some friction as this kicks off … if you have an issue, internet or computer, raise it up,” Cloutier said.

He added that every day spent virtual learning is intended to count as a school day. “At the end of the school year, ideally we won’t have to tack any days on,” Cloutier said.

In terms of personal and professional travel, orders and separations, no restrictions have been implemented in or out of Italy, except for non-essential travel to Lombardy and Comune di V’ Euganeo. Some planned MWR trips also have been cancelled.

According to Cloutier, the Department of the Army is developing leave and PCS policies to address service-wide leave, travel and PCS policies in all affected areas.

“Right now there is no impact on the PCS or ETS," Cloutier said. "Obviously if you are symptomatic with the virus, you would be impacted but right now there’s no impact, but the Army writ large is looking at this.”

Cases of COVID-19 began skyrocketing in Italy in mid-February, going from three to more than a couple hundred in a matter of days. Schools, universities and theaters have been closed and public events cancelled, including the closing days of Venice’s famed carnival.

Nearly a dozen towns have been quarantined.

U.S. Army Health Center Vicenza is prepared to handle cases, and the local hospital at San Bortolo has relocated its obstetrics services and maternity wards to safeguard pregnant and delivering patients, according to Army officials.

Health Center commander Lt. Col. Joe Matthews said he doesn’t expect health services to be affected should a case be diagnosed.

The base has one confirmed case of the flu, Matthews added.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” Matthews said. “if you have questions, concerns, please call the number we’ve set up.”

While worship services are canceled, the base chapel and other worship locations remain open, with chaplains available for personal reflection and counseling, according to garrison commander Col. Dan Vogel.

Officials said they planned to keep the community apprised frequently of updates.

“We will be open and transparent on this,” Vogel said.

Vicenza is home to nearly 16,000 troops, family members, retirees and civilian DoD employees. Cloutier said the installation is equipped to “undertake this challenge,” but it’s going to take a “team effort.”

“We’re looking at this not only as military professionals but as husbands and fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. This is our community … we are concerned about COVID-19, and what we are trying to put everything in place to protect our families, to protect our communities," Cloutier said.

"At the same time, though, we have a military mission … as we go through this process, we are going to continue training,” he added.

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