Amid coronavirus pandemic, students' first day at DODEA's overseas schools looked different
By CAITLIN DOORNBOS AND STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 24, 2020
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The first day of school on U.S. military bases overseas took on the trappings of a pandemic Monday as children bustled off to class in masks or logged on to meet their teachers from home.
Schools on a handful of bases with a substantial risk of the coronavirus spreading, or Health Protection Condition-Charlie in military terms, are holding class remotely under a policy set by the Department of Defense Education Activity for the new school year.
In the Pacific, that includes DODEA schools at Yokosuka Naval Base and the Army’s Camp Zama in mainland Japan, as well on installations in Okinawa, Guam and South Korea.
Under DODEA-Europe, 58 schools opened their classrooms while retaining a remote option, while six schools located in Bahrain, Spain and Ankara, Turkey, began the year with distance learning due to health concerns.
The day was embraced with a mix of excitement and trepidation by parents leaving their kids at school for the first time in more than five months.
“We feel our kids are in good hands,” said Army Master Sgt. Faustin Desir, while dropping off his two children, in first and third grades, at Vogelweh Elementary School in Germany.
But “as a parent, it is very difficult, because of the unknown,” said Desir, who works for the 21st Theater Sustainment Command in Kaiserslautern. “This morning, my wife and I, we prayed for our kids.”
Rachel Byrd, the mother of a second grader at Vogelweh, said being at school will give her daughter “the structure that she’s used to … and a little sense of control.”
At Vogelweh, like other DODEA schools in Europe, parents were asked not to accompany their children into the building for health reasons.
Vogelweh principal David Lee gave parents a glimpse of how the morning was going through a series of live videos posted on the school’s Facebook page Monday.
Students were spread out at tables or desks “by at least a pool noodle away from each other,” he said.
At Yokosuka, several parents said remote learning didn’t stop them from keeping up their yearly back-to-school traditions. Navy spouse Karina Moretz packed a lunchbox for her fourth-grade son, Nathan Moretz, 9.
“Keeping to our tradition helped make the transition from being at home to remote schooling,” she said. “I’ve always done the first-day-of-school photo because I want to look back over the years and see how he’s changed.”
“I didn’t want to miss this year’s photo just because the school year will start at our table,” she added.
Samantha Valera, whose husband is a civilian employee at Yokosuka, said she continued her annual tradition of making special pancakes for her third-grader, Isaac. Though she had wanted her son to start school in-person this year, she said the online start went smoothly.
“We have a great teacher, so virtual learning is going well,” Valera said.
At Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Donald Williams, community superintendent for DODEA Pacific East, called this school year a “new era of education.” Yokota High School, for example, launched the day with a seminar on hygiene practices, proper mask-wearing and social distancing.
In the hallways, students will travel a predetermined path to avoid getting too close to each other; instead of using drinking fountains, they’re instructed to carry water bottles.
Video chats linked to classrooms replace large assemblies.
Still, students across Yokota found familiar sights and traditions. Parents, many in uniform, walked their kids to class at Yokota West and Joan K. Mendel elementary schools.
Mendel students were welcomed by chalk drawings around campus encouraging them to “Have a great year!” and to “Make this year rock!” Parents watched outside the fenced-in playground as their kids stood in line with their new classmates before filing inside.
As a special treat at Yokota West, first-responders and base firefighters waved the kids into school.
While dropping off her 6-year-old son, Cayden Cabusao, Tech. Sgt. Liezel Cabusao said opening the schools makes sense, even during the pandemic.
“Yes, they have COVID, but I know they have processes in place … and socialization with other kids is great,” she said, referring to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Schools across DODEA instituted universal online learning in the spring because of the pandemic. Master Sgt. John Esposito, assigned to the 374th Comptroller Squadron at Yokota, said helping students at home was challenging.
“As a parent, you have to get more engaged and remember those things from the eighth or ninth grades to try to help them out with their questions,” he said. “It’s pretty difficult.”
His son Vincent Esposito, a Yokota High School freshman, said he was “looking forward to sports this year and seeing my friends.”
Yokota High math teacher Shuji Lee Miller said he was looking forward to interacting face-to-face with students again, even if from behind a mask.
“Virtual learning is not an exact substitute for in-person instruction,” Miller said. “High-schoolers still need guidance and don’t always have the maturity to seek out help on their own. In a classroom, it is easier to see the beginning signs of when a student is struggling.”
Miller said distance learning was a good way for students to get more technologically savvy and practice initiative, but some students may have difficulty managing distractions from home or may hesitate to ask for help.
“It created more of a college-type environment requiring students to be owners of their own learning,” he said. “It required the students to be self-sufficient.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Jennifer Svan, Brian Ferguson, Erica Earl, Theron Godbold and Seth Robson contributed to this report.