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Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matthew Keechi hugs his daughter Natalie on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, before dropping her off at Ramstein Intermediate School for the first day of the new school year.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matthew Keechi hugs his daughter Natalie on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, before dropping her off at Ramstein Intermediate School for the first day of the new school year. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

Students, teachers and parents at U.S. military bases overseas greeted the first day of school Monday with cautious optimism despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As of Monday, about 45,000 students were enrolled at 109 Department of Defense Education Activity Schools in Europe and the Pacific, according to DODEA data.

Fewer than 500 are signed up for virtual school overseas, an option provided to families concerned about sending their children to school because of the pandemic.

But the demand for virtual school wasn’t as high as expected, DODEA officials said, perhaps indicating that families are feeling more secure about in-person learning.

“We’re excited to get back into brick and mortar,” Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matthew Keechi said while dropping off his daughter Natalie, a fourth grader, at Ramstein Intermediate School. Natalie was home-schooled last year.

Schools have dealt with the coronavirus for more than a year, so he’s hopeful that the mitigations in place will be enough to keep schools open.

All DODEA schools require everyone to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Anita Hammer, whose daughter Cora is also in the fourth grade at Ramstein, said she was thankful for mandatory masks. The family moved to Germany from Hurlbert Field in Florida a month ago.

“Honestly, considering where we were and how it’s going in Florida, we’re very thankful (to be) here,” she said, referring to the high coronavirus caseload in Florida. “Our kids don’t mind wearing masks. That’s the least we could do.”

Aiyanna Sanders and her family moved to Italy two weeks ago. Last year, Aiyanna attended school remotely in Norfolk, Va. Monday was Aiyanna’s first day at Naples Middle High School, where she is a freshman.

“I’m nervous,” said the 14-year-old, who was happy to be back in the classroom. “I’m hoping to make friends and find someone I can walk with every day.”

Aleigh Lamis, 17, said she was hoping for a normal senior year. Last year, seniors didn’t get to participate in many of the traditional activities, such as prom, she said.

“Hopefully, we can have a good senior year filled with a lot of normal activities, a fun, eventful year where we can be in person,” Lamis said.

Near Naples Elementary School, Keturah Ernest and her daughter, Kaleigh B, took photos while waiting for school to begin.

“I hope she grows and becomes less shy and blossoms,” said Ernest, who home-schooled her daughter last year.

Many people at Defense Department schools in Japan, where the number of coronavirus cases reached record highs over the summer, were happy to see students and teachers back in classrooms rather than on computer screens.

Keturah Ernest and her 6-year-old daughter, Kaleigh B, get ready to take back-to-school photos outside Naples Elementary School at the Gricignano di Aversa site on Naval Support Activity Naples, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Keturah Ernest and her 6-year-old daughter, Kaleigh B, get ready to take back-to-school photos outside Naples Elementary School at the Gricignano di Aversa site on Naval Support Activity Naples, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Alison Bath/Stars and Stripes)
Students wait outside Yokota High School on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, the first day of classes at the school at Tokyo's Yokota Air Base.
Students wait outside Yokota High School on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, the first day of classes at the school at Tokyo's Yokota Air Base. (Juan King/Stars and Stripes)
Yokota High School principal Rebecca Villagomez chats with base commander Col. Andrew Campbell, left, and Chief Master Sgt. Jerry Dunn on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Yokota High School principal Rebecca Villagomez chats with base commander Col. Andrew Campbell, left, and Chief Master Sgt. Jerry Dunn on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Juan King/Stars and Stripes)
Army chaplains from the unit ministry team at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, welcome Camp Humphreys Central Elementary School students back to class on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Army chaplains from the unit ministry team at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, welcome Camp Humphreys Central Elementary School students back to class on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (David Choi/Stars and Stripes)
Students head to their classrooms Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, on the first day of school at Yokota High School in western Tokyo.
Students head to their classrooms Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, on the first day of school at Yokota High School in western Tokyo. (Juan King/Stars and Stripes)
The Naples Middle High School mascot and teachers greet children and parents near the entrance Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
The Naples Middle High School mascot and teachers greet children and parents near the entrance Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Alison Bath/Stars and Stripes)
Teachers, parents and children line up outside Naples Elementary School on the Gricignano di Aversa site of Naval Support Activity Naples on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Teachers, parents and children line up outside Naples Elementary School on the Gricignano di Aversa site of Naval Support Activity Naples on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Alison Bath/Stars and Stripes)
Neissa St Jean, a fourth grade teacher at Ramstein Intermediate School at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, reassures a student on the first day of school Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Neissa St Jean, a fourth grade teacher at Ramstein Intermediate School at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, reassures a student on the first day of school Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)
Students follow their teacher across the street and into school on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, at Ramstein Intermediate School on Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Students follow their teacher across the street and into school on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, at Ramstein Intermediate School on Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

“I talked to a lot of different students and base community members, and they are just happy that we are in person,” Rebecca Villagomez, principal of Yokota High School at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, told Stars and Stripes on Monday. “They were just excited to be back at school, see their friends, see people face to face, and we are pretty lucky to have our school be in person again this year.”

Yokota High still abides by mandates for masks and social distancing. It also has a COVID-19 mitigation team that meets frequently to discuss efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

“It’s not just me looking at it and making decisions,” Villagomez said. “For me, as the leader of the school I really try to have a team mindset.”

Any school activity that requires approval by the base public health authorities is reviewed by the COVID-19 team first, then goes to the base for approval, she said.

Farther west in Japan, at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, doors opened again at M.C. Perry High School with high expectations.

“I hope that we can regain a sense of normalcy as we go through the year,” English language arts teacher Mark Lange said.

Despite the uncertainty in 2020 and 2021, the school missed only one day of classes last year, said Lange, who is starting his 35th year as a teacher. He said that when expectations are high, as they are now, students usually reach the mark.

M.C. Perry’s principal, Latressa Renee Cobb, said that she was happy to see students back in classrooms.

“We’re so excited to have normalcy,” she said. “And I know we’re over the term ‘the new normal,’ but we’re so excited to have a sense of normalcy back.”

That sense of normal includes sports seasons and routine school activities, Cobb said.

M.C. Perry student Sera Shimakura, the captain of the softball team, said her expectations include a return to routine scholastic life.

“I’m looking forward to sports because we get to travel, and we get to have actual games because we didn’t have a fall season last year,” she said. “So I’m looking forward to that, and I’m also looking forward to homecoming.”

Defense Department schools in South Korea echoed the first-day enthusiasm.

At Humphreys Central Elementary School on the Army’s Camp Humphreys, Marcum Savage, 8, said he was excited to start school and make friends.

His father, Army Warrant Officer Tony Savage of the 2nd Infantry Division, Sustainment Brigade, said he shares his son’s outlook.

“I’m excited for him to meet new friends, see new people and get to know his teachers,” Savage said. “We’re actually new to Korea here, so it’s exciting for him to get out and make some friends.”

Isiah Alter, 9, and his brother Mason, 7, were eager to start school at Humphreys Central. Their family recently arrived from Fort Riley, Kansas, said their mother, Joanna Alter. The Alters did a tour in South Korea several years ago.

“They’re excited to start here in Korea to see what it’s like in a different country,” Joanna Alter said. “It’s been about five years since we were here last time, and they were too young to remember.”

At Humphreys High School, Nichole Jones, mother of three children ages 7, 12 and 15, said her family was ready to get back to school.

Last year, the Jones children attended an international school in South Korea.

“Their online school was really good,” Jones said. “But the kids do so much better in person.”

She said she prefers the structured environment a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse affords over remote learning.

“And socialization, kids need to be around other children,” Jones said.

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