Department of Defense Education Activity parents have two additional days to decide whether to send their children to school in person next month or enroll them in virtual learning for at least a semester.
DoDEA has extended the deadline for signing students up for virtual learning to July 30. The option is being made available to any student concerned about the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those with health vulnerabilities, according to DoDEA officials.
The DoD is planning for all students to begin school in their local classrooms between Aug. 17 and Sept. 1, depending on location.
Schools will open contingent on the force health protection status of local installations. Under Health Protection Conditions Alpha and Bravo, students will report to their schools. Under HPCON Charlie or higher, school buildings will be closed and students will receive instruction from their teachers remotely.
When the school year starts, students in traditional classrooms can expect schools to be frequently cleaned and sanitized, according to DoDEA guidance, and desks are to be placed at least six feet apart, if an installation is under HPCON Bravo.
Students will be expected to practice social distancing and must wear face coverings when physical distancing is "difficult." Staff also should wear face masks per the guidance, but they are not required.
For those selecting the virtual learning option, school begins Aug. 24. Students will receive instruction from a school established by DoDEA that is independent of their local classrooms, and their experience will remain the same regardless of local health conditions.
The virtual school will have its own staff and instructors, and students will work with teachers -- and parents -- to ensure that they are accomplishing the work.
Students "will be able to access the instructional content and assignments 24/7, allowing for student scheduling flexibility" while teachers will provide regular office hours and ongoing support and engagement as needed, according to DoDEA.
But there are many questions about what services will be supported and how learning will take place, according to military parents facing the decision.
In a statement to parents, DoDEA Director Tom Brady encouraged them to choose the in-school option, saying classroom instruction is the "optimal environment for most of our military-connected students."
"Restoring teaching and learning to the familiar environments of our classrooms provides students with stability and continuity. Face-to-face instruction and the routines of school add significantly to success and growth for all students," Brady said.
Still, if they have concerns, virtual learning is available through DoDEA, as well as independent home schooling.
The union that represents DoDEA teachers has started encouraging parents to choose the virtual learning option for their children. According to a post on its Facebook page, the
Federal Education Association lacks confidence in DoDEA's ability to safely reopen schools under current conditions.
In a statement, FEA President Brian Chance said DoDEA's precautions are "completely unrealistic."
"DoDEA expects teachers to somehow clean every surface within a classroom while simultaneously educating children," he wrote. "DoDEA is refusing to require students to wear masks and is instead expecting children as young as five to remain seated and a safe distance from each other throughout the day. How can a teacher safely interact with a child if that child is not wearing a mask?"
FEA's director for stateside DoDEA schools was more blunt.
"DoDEA's plan to reopen its schools for in-person learning is a disaster waiting to happen!" Jane Loggins said. "DoDEA needs to immediately switch to a remote opening of all schools and maintain remote operation until such time as the COVID threat rescinds in the communities around DoDEA schools, adequate protective equipment and cleaning plans can be guaranteed at all schools, and testing with fast, reliable results becomes readily available."
Parents say the decision is not easy. In some places in Europe, for instance, schools are not telling parents the exact protocols they plan to follow until after they know how many students choose virtual learning or parents inform the DoDEA that they plan to homeschool.
"The lack of answers and unrealistic measures being taken did not exude confidence on [my children's] behalf," a mom wrote on the FEA page.
In other areas, like Beaufort, South Carolina, where installations are at different HPCON levels, parents still don't know whether they have the option to enroll their children at the brick-and-mortar school.
During a question-and-answer session hosted by DoDEA Southeast District last week, administrators said they understood the issue has come up and officials are "working with installation commanders" for additional guidance.
"I am sorry, but that is not a proper answer," wrote one frustrated parent during the session.
The DoDEA operates 160 schools in 11 countries, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico, serving more than 69,000 students.
The activity began closing in late winter in response to the spreading pandemic. Schools in Italy were closed Feb. 24, followed by South Korea and Bahrain on Feb. 26. Schools in the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe, Turkey, Japan and the U.S. closed in March.
Officials announced in May that the schools would remain closed until the end of the school year. The DoDEA has been offering online courses during the summer for some students.
More than 36,600 personnel, dependents and DoD employees have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus since February and 3,417 dependents -- spouses, retiree family members and children -- have contracted it, according to the DoD. Three military personnel and seven dependents have died.