Many military parents are dealing with concerns about their children’s education in the era of coronavirus, and moving to a new duty station may only compound those worries and the uncertainty.
This year, parents and educators are dealing with not only the “summer slide” — the usual slippage of skills for some students over the summer — but the “COVID slide,” as schools across the country either closed or drastically changed their instruction. The level of instruction has varied from place to place, too. Overnight, many parents became their children’s stay-at-home teacher, as most people were sheltering in place. Parents are exhausted, having taken on the role of educator in addition to maintaining their own jobs and homes.
There’s also a lot of uncertainty about what will be happening with schools in the fall. For example, in his end-of-year message June 8 for families, Tom Brady, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, said officials are monitoring each of their localities around the world “to determine how and when we can safely bring students back to school, and what that will look like.
“No final decisions have yet been made, but rest assured that the health of our students, families, teachers, and staff is our highest priority.”
DoDEA school re-openings may or may not mirror public school districts’ policies outside the installation, but will be based on the health and protection conditions and protocols established jointly by the commands and DoDEA. More than 68,000 students are enrolled in 161 DoDEA schools around the world.
But the vast majority of military school-age children attend schools outside the gate, and many of these school districts around the country are grappling with these decisions about when and how to reopen. Check your school district’s website for information. Another resource is the installation’s school liaison officer, your link between the military installation and local school districts, and they can provide information before you move. Find a directory of SLOs here. Also, GreatSchools.org has a variety of information about schools, and contact information.
There will be individual situations and conditions in various locations, depending on military requirements and local conditions and requirements.
School districts are addressing different issues that are expected in the fall. For example, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, some students are subject to a 14-day quarantine because they’re traveling from certain areas that may be hot spots for the coronavirus. Those students “will have 14 days minimum of virtual instruction, because they won’t be allowed in those buildings,” said Marcus Lingenfelter, senior vice president of Edmentum, which provides digital curriculum, assessments, and educational services to more than 8,000 school districts across the country. The superintendent of the public school district serving Fort Leavenworth has implemented plans to address issues surrounding quarantine, Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter was one of six experts who spoke on a panel providing tips and advice for military parents of K-12 students, during a COVID-19 Military Support Initiative, a program of the Association of Defense Communities and Blue Star Families.
Some military families have already notified their school districts that their school children won’t be back in school buildings in the fall, Lingenfelter said. Whether it’s families or school systems making these decisions, the school systems are taking steps to address the continuity of learning “whether you’re in or out of the buildings,” he said.
Military parents are often concerned about whether there will be learning gaps for their child when they make a PCS move, and the child enters a new school. Those worries are compounded by all the “unfinished learning” caused by COVID-19. But parents need to step back a bit from the stress and understand that educators realize what the situation has been. Parents have probably been doing a better job than they realize in helping their children, the experts said.
Some tips and advice from those experts:
*Realize that “everyone is in the same boat. Every parent, every student, every school and educator knows it’s been an unusual spring and it may well be an unusual fall,” said Pamela Brehm, senior director of military and government programs at Tutor.com. The program offers on-demand tutoring services at no-cost to military families, funded by DoD and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance. During the pandemic, they’ve seen a 30-percent increase in demand for online tutoring services across the board, including the military community, she said.
*Remember that teachers are used to dealing with learning gaps. “When their students come back to school in September, there’s never been a class that I’ve ever seen where every student is in the same place with all of the content at the same time,” said Patricia Ewen, education policy adviser for the partnership division of the Department of Defense Education Activity. “So doing your best is enough,” she said.
*Take steps to identify gaps in your child’s learning, said Carrie Goux, vice president of external affairs at GreatSchools.org, which has a variety of education resources to help parents through COVID-19. If possible, talk to the child’s teacher about what your child should be working on this summer, she said. Ask if he or she was able to cover everything they normally would. Some online tools can help, too. At GreatSchools.org, there’s a tool to help identify the key skills your child should have learned for their grade, K-8. Beginning June 20, their summer learning calendar will be available, linking to a variety of worksheets, creative booklets, and other resources. At LearningHeroes.org, you can help your child take an assessment to see where the child is at what grade level, and what your child might want to work on over the summer.
DoDEA has a summer learning program that can help parents of children in grades K-8 bridge that learning gap between the end of the school year and the beginning of the next. KhanAcademy.org will soon launch an online learning camp; and CampKinda.org offers summer learning programs, Goux said.
*Check out summer reading programs, such as the DoD summer reading program, which also has a virtual component. If your library on base is open and offering the program, you can take advantage of it there. Reading cannot be overemphasized, and should continue through the summer. DoDEA’s Ewen said parents should read aloud to their children even after they become independent readers. Play math games with your child. Ewen said there are at least 100 games you can play with one deck of cards.
*Communicate with your school district’s main office. Let them know your circumstances, for example, if your child is subject to a quarantine when arriving. Be very specific with them about the date you’re arriving, when your child will be available. “The more information you can share with the school system, the better they can inform you about how to get your child enrolled,” said Becky Porter, president and CEO of the Military Child Education Coalition.
“School buildings are closed, but schools are open and operating, and people are working as hard as they can to the best of their ability,” DoDEA’s Ewen said. At DoDEA, which monitors 235 active grant programs in 35 states through its partnership program with public schools, “we’ve been able to verify that all the school systems that we work with [that have high numbers of military-connected students] are able to enroll students just as they always have,” she said. “And they are able to send students off with the proper records just as they always have. They recognize how important this is.”
*Get a copy of your child’s unofficial school records before you PCS. Call your school or school district office to get a copy. As part of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, all schools should be providing unofficial copies of these records to hand carry to the next school district, said Cherise Imai, executive director of the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission. This helps in the quick placement of the child in the courses and programs in the new school. Many schools don’t provide the official records to parents, but do provide the transcripts/records directly to the new school.
*Document, document, document. Pull together everything you can to create a portfolio for your child — report cards, assessments, information about programs such as gifted and talented, involvement in school activities, information about textbooks and curricula.
This is especially important for special needs children, said Michelle Norman, executive director and co-founder of Partners in Promise, which advocates and provides resources for military families with exceptional needs. She advises documenting how the child was performing before the pandemic, as well as collecting samples of work and testing materials completed during the pandemic.
“You want to be as organized, and do as much data collection as you can, so that when you do get to an [Individualized Education Program] meeting, you are prepared,” she said. This helps parents work with the schools to see if there are any services and supports that are needed after this pandemic when students return to the school house.
There are a variety of resources on the organization’s website, www.thepromiseact.org, including a special education checklist.
Many families of children with special needs are concerned about their children’s progress, especially when many of the children are medically complex, and parents are worried about them being exposed to the coronavirus. “Most of those have probably stopped bringing in their Applied Behavior Analysis therapist, their respite provider, just for fear for keeping their children safe,” she said. “You can’t really replace that direct intervention and support your child gets.”
But there is a silver lining, Norman said. “Parents are now seeing their child’s strengths and weaknesses… what has worked at home, what hasn’t worked at home.
“You are now the most knowledgeable person that has overseen the delivery and given that delivery of instruction.
“That can be a huge asset when you come to the table and advocate for your child.”
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.