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DODEA Schools Keeps On With In-Person Classes, and Fall Sports, Too

Kids playing football Linemen from the Fort Knox Eagles football team practice reaction drills in August 2021, learning to anticipate moving when the ball moves (Photo by: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox).

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The thud of kicked soccer balls, the clash of shoulder pads at football games, and cheers from classmates and parents are once again being heard around the world at Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

Despite continued concerns about COVID-19, fall sports and activities have resumed after a tough autumn in 2020, when those sounds were absent.

"The coaches worked really hard with our public health partners and the military to come up with a plan so we can do that safely," said Josh Adams, community superintendent for DODEA's schools in Kentucky (at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell).

While fall sports were a casualty of COVID-19 in 2020, DODEA schools in general weathered the pandemic rather well, superintendents at home and abroad said. And with the new year well underway, DODEA officials are optimistic they can carry on the success experienced during the worst months of the pandemic, when many DOD schools remained open for in-person learning, in contrast to most civilian schools.

Adams noted that some sports resumed in the spring and went smoothly, and that his Kentucky district is seeking to provide the most normal and positive learning environment that it possibly can.

"The entire DODEA community rose to meet this challenge during [school years] 2019-20 and 2020-21 with flexibility and determination," wrote DODEA Director Thomas Brady, in his message in the DODEA COVID-19 Operational Guidelines and Protocols for Schools, Version 7, released shortly before the school year began.

Brady said infection rates remained low throughout the pandemic for both students and staff.

"I remain incredibly grateful for all the effort put in last year by administrators and teachers and our partners in command, and parents, the students, to put in place and then maintain all the mitigation we had last year," said Adams. "It allowed us to stay in in-person schooling almost the entire year."

Adams said there were a few occasions that called for the closure of individual classrooms or an entire school for periods of quarantine.

"The low infection rates coupled with DoDEA's ability to provide uninterrupted instruction serve as evidence of the efficacy of this plan and of DoDEA's unwavering commitment to the total force and the warfighter's mission readiness," Brady wrote.

"To maximize in-person learning opportunities for all students, DoDEA will continue to implement multiple layers of prevention strategies."

Regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, DODEA, which includes schools for pre-K through grade 12, worked with the military in the spring to provide vaccine opportunities to all employees, including teachers, and Adams said a majority received it.

For students age 12 and over, districts have left that decision to parents, a policy that is still in place. Currently children 12 and older are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Access to vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 may be approved later this year.

Adams, who arrived at his job in Kentucky during the height of a national lockdown in July 2020, said he sees an "increased confidence" from his teachers and administrators on what to do in the new school year.

student wearing a face mask in class
A student at Vogelweh Elementary School in Germany pays attention during a lesson in September 2020 (Russell Toof, Regional Health Command Europe).

"We offered students a couple of options last year," he said. "In-person schooling with all our mitigation strategies in place to keep us safe, or they could also participate in a virtual school option. ... The majority of students came to school and by the end of the year it was the vast majority that were in-person."

Mitigation strategies varied across the DODEA school systems and included wearing masks, providing easy access to COVID testing and increased vigilance from school nursing teams.

Teachers were nimble, he said, adding that if a classroom had to be quarantined for a period, they "were amazing at immediately pivoting to remote learning for their students, so that students just picked right up a day or two later. We had to do that a few times last year."

In school, overseas

For DODEA schools overseas, in-person schooling was the primary goal, but there were more frequent and periodic school closures influenced by the mandates of host nations.

"We had one small block of time when we were remote," said Jason Ter Horst, community superintendent of DODEA's Europe East district, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany and comprised of 32 schools in seven military communities.

"But honestly that was because the host nation, Germany in this case, put their schools in recess and we followed suit, despite the fact that our mitigation strategies seemed to be working really effectively," Ter Horst said.

Ter Horst said his district had outstanding support from DODEA headquarters in the region, and partners such as its local logistics teams, base commanders, and public health officials.

"We had very few incidents and we didn't have any that were necessarily proven to be school-transmitted, person-to-person," he said. "We felt our efforts were really robust and allowed us to maintain in-school, in-person learning."

That COVID-19 has disproportionately affected older people helped the mitigation efforts of schools, but new strains of the virus, including the Delta variant that is driving up hospitalizations and deaths around the world, has DODEA officials remaining on high alert. Going into the fall, Adams said in early August that his team was expecting and looking forward to the same effort and focus from the previous school year.

"We are also feeling confident that between the really good, up-to-date guidance we continue to get from DODEA and our military partners, that we're doing our mitigation correctly," he said.

An example of these strategies is a recent tabletop exercise at U.S. Army Garrison Daegu at Camp Walker in Korea. The USAG Daegu commander and the DODEA Pacific West District superintendent joined more than two dozen partners to consider steps required to respond safely and quickly to mitigate COVID-19 impacts to classroom learning.

The virus does continue to shutter classrooms, despite all the precautions. DODEA reported that new cases of COVID-19 were reported at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, in mid-September, resulting in the closure of 19 classrooms at six schools.

"It helps when everybody's on the team. Teachers, parents and kids were all adhering to the guidelines," said Ter Horst. "Last year, our military command had their public health team offer a meeting for our [school] nurses on a weekly basis to answer questions as they came up. They worked with our regional office on policy setting. The COVID environment has certainly taught us all how to be very flexible. We gather information, we make informed decisions on data, and I think we'll continue to do that this year."

DODEA operates 160 schools in eight districts, located in 11 foreign countries, seven states, and two U.S. territories, with a total enrollment of more than 60,000 students.

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