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Kadena High School biology teacher Melody Swanson teaches her students via a video link from the United States, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Kadena High School biology teacher Melody Swanson teaches her students via a video link from the United States, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — About 15 students gathered Monday at Kadena High School, Okinawa, for a biology class taught by a teacher who was on the other side of the world.

Melody Swanson, 45, is among the dozens of teachers and other staff at Department of Defense Education Activity schools in the Pacific who were granted “authorized departure,” allowing them to return to the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The program, commonly called AD, was approved by DOD in the spring to allow overseas civilian workers and their families to return home if they are “at a higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed” to the virus, according to DODEA-Pacific spokeswoman Miranda Ferguson.

Seventy-two DODEA-Pacific staffers went back to the States under the program, which runs until Dec. 9, although 23 have already opted to return to their duty stations.

“Teachers who remain on AD are managing lesson plans, coordinating with an in-person substitute, and actively engaged with their class,” Ferguson recently told Stars and Stripes.

Swanson returned to her hometown, Langlois, Ore., due to health reasons she preferred not to disclose. She and her family went through a 14-day quarantine when they returned to the States and are receiving per diem and renting a house, she said.

Swanson’s youngest son is participating in DODEA’s virtual school program while she uses a video link to teach remotely with the help of a substitute, Antiwon Tucker, who is in class with her students at Kadena.

“He and I collaborate daily,” she said. “I plan lessons and I grade everything online.”

Swanson can see her students using a camera connected to her laptop and they can see her on a large “smart board” video display.

During Monday’s class, students did an experiment in which they poured colored dyes into a sample of milk, then inserted toothpicks and watched as the colors moved around.

Freshman Katelyn Wetherington said it’s good having Swanson engaging remotely while Tucker is there to lend a hand, but also able pick up the full teaching load if the internet link goes out.

“It’s a really new experience, and it’s interesting to see how we learn this way because of COVID,” she said. COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. There are pros and cons to being back in the States, Swanson said. The time difference on the West Coast means she starts her days early and teaches until about 11 a.m. Things are a little tougher for teachers who are living farther east with some teaching at 2 a.m.

“I miss my students and I miss the school and the collegiality,” she said. “But I’m glad to be here for my health. I know in this area there is no COVID and I have more access to medical care here than I feel like I would on Okinawa. My parents and siblings are here. I have more of a support system.” Twitter: @SethRobson1 Twitter: @daveornauer

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