Unions representing educators in Department of Defense schools for military and DoD civilian children are urging school officials to open schools remotely only this summer, rather than bringing most students into the buildings.
“A physical reopening of our schools this summer presents unacceptable health and safety risks to students, employees, and their families,” said the union leaders in a letter to Department of Defense Education Activity Director Tom Brady.
The leaders noted that COVID-19 continues to be a “massive threat” at many locations where DoDEA schools are located, both in the United States and abroad.
“We realize the important role DoDEA schools play in support of the military but a physical reopening of schools under present conditions risks turning students and employees into spreaders of the virus – which would be incredibly harmful to military readiness,” wrote union leaders Brian Chance, president of the Federal Education Association, and Jane Loggins, FEA director for the Stateside Region.
DoDEA officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they are considering the request for a remote-only reopening.
FEA president Brian Chance met virtually with Tom Brady the morning of July 21, and presented the letter, according to FEA spokesman Gary Hritz. “If DoDEA refuses to go with a totally remote opening, we’d encourage all parents to choose the virtual option,” Hritz said.
In his message to parents, students and school staff earlier this month, Brady acknowledged that some families may have circumstances where they don’t want to, or are unable to, send their child back to the school building setting. Some students have health or other concerns related to the pandemic that will prevent them from returning to the building.
Thus, DoDEA is providing its virtual school platform as an option for those students to continue their learning remotely, he said.
But the physical setting is the preferred one. “We have always believed that instruction in the classroom is the optimal learning environment for most of our military-connected students. Restoring teaching and learning to the familiar environments of our classrooms, provides students with stability and continuity,” Brady stated.
Brady said the schools “will remain flexible and prepared for any contingency.” DoDEA officials have outlined guidance in a publication called “Ensuring a Safe and Healthy Return to School,” for social distancing for Health Protection conditions Alpha, Bravo and Charlie regarding classrooms, corridors and common area, cafeterias, buses, playgrounds and large group events. In HPCON Charlie, schools are closed.
With the rise in COVID-19 cases in a number of states in the South, DoDEA officials have delayed the start of some schools in the Americas Southeast District from early August to mid- to late August. There DoDEA schools at 13 bases in seven states in the continental U.S.
Those schools affected and their new start dates are:
• Fort Campbell and Fort Knox, Kentucky, Aug. 24
• Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, Georgia, Aug. 17
• Fort Rucker and Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Aug. 24
• Fort Jackson and Laurel Bay, South Carolina: Aug. 24
But the problem affects the entire school system, with an estimated 69,000 students attending 160 schools in 11 countries, and totally remote openings should be implemented at all the schools, the leaders stated.
“There remains a great deal of uncertainty whether DoDEA schools will have adequate personal protective equipment on hand, whether plans for keeping schools clean are realistic, and whether the virtual school option can be properly deployed and staffed in time for it intended late August launch,” the union leaders wrote. Local quarantines, uncertainty about whether educators in locations away from their schools will be allowed to return, and concerns about shortages of substitute teachers in many areas are additional factors. Hundreds of overseas DoDEA educators are still on Authorized Departure to designated “safe haven” locations. Those departures have been extended through at least Aug. 10, which wouldn’t give those educators enough time to return and complete their quarantine before the start of school, the union leaders contend.
According to the union leaders, public schools outside the gates of installations in the U.S. where there are DoDEA schools have decided to open remotely, and DoDEA teachers’ children attend these schools. This could affect the availability of the DoDEA work force.
The unions are concerned about steps DoDEA is taking for safety, noting officials aren’t installing plexi-glass, aren’t requiring students to wear masks, or requiring daily temperature checks as staff and students arrive; and DoDEA “is not committing to follow stringent Centers for Disease Control recommendations for school re-openings.” Instead, DoDEA has said it will follow a combination of CDC and “much looser” DoD guidelines, according to the unions.
While DoDEA is offering the option of virtual school, staffing needs of the virtual schools are unclear, and schools may not have enough certified educators to meet all needs, especially for in-person classes, the unions contend.
This all could impact military readiness, if students get infected and bring the virus home to their active-duty military parents. In addition, a number of school employees are military spouses, who will be at greater risk of infection.
Remote opening would allow each location served by DoDEA to decide independently when to reopen schools, based on local conditions, threat level, preparations and precautions, the leaders stated.
DoDEA has been planning and coordinating with local installation and community leaders in order to ease the safe return for students, Brady said in his message to the DoDEA community. The implementation of social distancing will look different from school to school, he said, as leaders account for their student needs, building configurations, Health Protection Condition levels, installation conditions, and local government regulations.
If the Health Protection Condition changes, and school closures are necessary, the schools have a contingency plan to transition to remote learning, as they did when schools closed earlier this year due to the pandemic.
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.