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A screenshot of the Department of Defense Education Activity-Europe virtual town hall meeting, July 22, 2020, on the agency's plan to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year.

A screenshot of the Department of Defense Education Activity-Europe virtual town hall meeting, July 22, 2020, on the agency's plan to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. (YouTube/European PTA)

Military parents in Europe must decide by Tuesday whether to send their children back into Defense Department classrooms or commit to online instruction, school officials said in a town hall meeting Wednesday.

But they have to make the decision before knowing how large classes will be or how they’ll be configured in light of the coronavirus pandemic, even though that information would likely be a key factor in the choice they make.

“The setup of the classrooms will be dependent on the number who opt for online instruction,” Charles Kelker, Department of Defense Education Activity Europe chief of staff, said at the virtual meeting.

Information about the virtual program was also limited, although officials said the content would be the same as in classrooms and that students would have more time flexibility in viewing lessons and instructional materials, compared to previous online learning.

The town hall meeting was the first since DODEA announced last week that the Pentagon’s 160 schools will reopen classrooms in the fall if local health conditions allow, and that they would follow both military guidelines and those made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DODEA-Europe director for Student Excellence Dell McMullen said she was confident those conditions, including social distancing and thorough hand-washing, would be met throughout Europe, which has managed to substantially bring down virus transmission rates.

Parents who prefer virtual school must agree to enroll their children for one full semester, with an option for the entire year. Online classes start Aug. 24.

DODEA officials did not respond directly when asked if parents who send their children back to class will be able to switch to the virtual program if they change their minds.

“We’re asking for a commitment,” said DODEA Virtual High School Principal Terri Marshall.

Of the more than 1,000 questions that were sent to DODEA officials ahead of the town hall, only a few were answered during the hourlong Zoom meeting.

By using physical distancing, outdoor activities, “grab and go” lunches and “alternative seating,” officials said they hoped to minimize the need for children who return to school to wear masks.

Contact sports have been canceled, they said, but modified cross-country, golf and cheerleading will still be available and virtual students will be allowed to participate, an apparent change in policy from earlier this month, when officials said students enrolled in virtual school will not be able to join extracurricular activities. Social distancing and masks would be used on school buses, but officials said they were not anticipating increasing the number of buses.

If a student or teacher were to test positive for the virus, the school would be closed for cleaning, Kelker said in response to a question. Commanders and DODEA would decide whether to permanently close a school if health conditions warranted it, he said.

Many viewers expressed dissatisfaction with the town hall, saying it was light on information.

“So basically no specifics were given out other than they don’t have to wear a mask at all times but we need to commit to a decision about virtual or brick and mortar...!” one person wrote on Facebook. Others called the meeting a “waste of time” or “ridiculous.”

But some people were more understanding.

“Thank you for all of the information. I know it’s impossible to answer everything specifically. Everyone is just on edge,” one person wrote.

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com Twitter:@montgomerynance

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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