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DODDS teachers hired in the U.S. told to stay in Japan

Family members of servicemembers board a shuttle bus headed from Yokosuka Naval Base to Narita International Airport on Friday. School employees in Japan were told Thursday that they would also be free to leave the country. But Friday morning, teachers and others hired in the United States they were told they were "essential employees" and unable to leave. Teachers hired locally in Japan are still allowed to leave, according to a Department of Defense Education Activity memo.

ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 18, 2011

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Defense Department school employees in Japan who were hired from the States were ordered Friday not to exit the country, leaving some with little choice but to keep their young children in Japan with them.

As word of a planned voluntary evacuation of Japan for military family members reached schools Thursday, principals called meetings and told school employees to prepare to leave if they wished.

On Friday, a memo from Marilee Fitzgerald, acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, reversed many of those plans.

“[United States] hired sponsor employees, including teachers and administrators, are considered essential employees and are not authorized departure under the order,” Fitzgerald’s memo said.

However, the memo explained that teachers who were in Japan when hired are allowed to leave for up to 30 days. Local hires are often spouses who accompanied servicemembers to the area.

The memo has some teachers considering whether to ignore the order out of fears that radiation from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant will spread south to Yokosuka, which is about 200 miles south of the plant.

Others are considering whether to send their children out of the country with friends, or to keep the family together and hope their fears turn out to be unfounded.

“We’re still weighing our options,” said Michael Valenzuela, an eighth-grade science teacher at Kinnick High School on Yokosuka Naval Base. Because Valenzuela’s wife is also a stateside school hire, neither of them are allowed to accompany their 9-month-old daughter out of the country.

“The only thing they told to us was ‘you’d have to find someone to take your daughter,’ ” on a plane leaving Japan, Valenzuela said.

Robin Blaisdell and her husband, Dean, are both stateside hires working at a school in the Navy’s Ikego housing area. They have two autistic children.

On Thursday, the school “was very insistent that if you could leave, go ahead,” Dean Blaisdell said.

He had been waiting in line for about six hours on Friday to get a health certificate so his dog could travel overseas when he heard about the memo, which came from the education activity’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.

“All the teachers and administrators are just completely stunned that they would do this,” Robin Blaisdell said.

Regina Dunroven, a second-grade and special-education teacher at Ikego, said her biggest complaint was that they weren’t getting consistent updates on nearby radiation levels, and whether those levels would increase.

“I’m stressed and wishing that I truly, honestly, knew whether I should leave,” Dunroven said. “And if I do leave, am I going to get my job back when the schools reopen?”

In the meantime, spouses and students are already leaving ahead of the planned military-assisted, voluntary evacuation.

On Wednesday, the last day of school this week, attendance at Kinnick High had dropped about 25 percent.

Only 10 of Robin Blaisdell’s 20 students showed up for class, she said.

Yokosuka area schools will remain closed Monday, base officials announced Friday. Teachers said the decision made the memo that much more difficult to understand.

“We are now essential personnel with no place to work,” Valenzuela said.

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

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