A union representing teachers and other staff members of schools worldwide operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity is calling for officials to immediately move all schools to remote learning operations, citing the death of a counselor at Fort Knox Middle/High School from COVID this week.

Officials at DoDEA confirmed the death, but didn’t confirm the name of the counselor or the cause of death. Military Times is not naming the counselor pending official notification.

In a statement announcing the death, the Federal Education Association said it ‘was completely preventable," calling for Tom Brady, director of DoDEA, to move all DoDEA schools to remote operations immediately. “Director Brady must take immediate action to make sure a tragedy such as this never happens again,” said Diane Gibbs, FEA director for the DoDEA Americas school system, which includes the four schools Fort Knox, Ky. The counselor who died was not a member of the union, said FEA spokesman Gary Hritz. There are about 15,000 employees working for DoDEA worldwide; about 7,000 educators and support staff are in the union’s bargaining units.

It’s believed to be the only COVID death among the worldwide DoDEA staff, according to Hritz. DoDEA officials could not confirm that.

It’s not known whether the counselor contracted COVID at the school, Gibbs said. However, she said that the school system switched to remote learning in early September after the counselor and several other school employees reported COVID symptoms. The FEA has been urging DoDEA for months to open in remote-only status in the fall, avoiding in-person classes for the safety of students, parents, teachers and other employees. DoDEA has given parents the option of having their child attend the DoDEA virtual school, a separate entity.

As of Sept. 14, there were 611 students attending Fort Knox Middle/High School in grades 7 through 12. At the 159 brick-and-mortar DoDEA schools around the world, there are about 66,000 students attending school with their teacher either remotely or in-person. Those numbers don’t include the DoDEA virtual school.

DoDEA spokesman Will Griffin said school officials work closely with military public health and military commands regarding decisions about whether to move schools to remote learning and back to in-person, with the health protection condition levels of an installation being the baseline for the decisions. There are protocols for closing and cleaning schools in the event COVID cases have been reported. Installation health officials and other leaders were also involved in the planning for reopening in the fall, including the safety and health protocols, requirements for social distancing, and other measures.

When school started, 25 of 50 DoDEA schools in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico opened remotely; overall about one-third of schools around the world opened remotely. Those numbers have fluctuated.

Gibbs, the union official, said there have been at least six educators in Fort Knox High School who have had COVID-related symptoms, after the schools opened on Aug. 24, prompting the schools at Fort Knox to switch to remote learning beginning Sept. 4. The Fort Knox schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning Sept. 21.

“It should be clear to all that [health protection condition] levels lag behind actual conditions on the ground,” Gibbs said. "HPCON levels do not reflect the dangerous health conditions on the base. Before those HPCON levels are deemed bad enough to require remote operation, the virus has already begun spreading. ..

“Cases have been springing up elsewhere throughout DoDEA. It is only a matter of time before another preventable and unnecessary death occurs,” she said.

The FEA-Stateside Region filed a notice of health and safety violations with DoDEA in August over its opening of schools for in-person learning, Gibbs said.

The counselor had worked with DoDEA students for more than 20 years, FEA spokesman Hritz said. “This dedicated educator made a difference to the students, parents, colleagues, and the Fort Knox community,” Gibbs said, in the announcement. "On behalf of the entire association, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to her family, friends, students and co-workers….

“Tom Brady must learn from his irresponsible decision that has put teachers and staff on the front lines to fight a losing battle against an invisible enemy.”

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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