KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- All of the Pentagon's 160 schools will reopen classrooms in the fall if local health conditions allow, while a virtual option also will be available to students, school officials said Wednesday.
"The safety of students and our teachers is most important and the imperative to get children back to class for learning," said Tom Brady, the director of the Department of Defense Education Activity.
"It's not taken lightly," he said of the decision to resume classroom learning.
The anticipated return to school for some 69,000 students and 8,700 educators worldwide comes after months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
DODEA rolled out a digital learning plan when facilities began closing last spring as the pandemic began to spread. Brady said schools are prepared to return to that if necessary.
"We've got to be flexible," he said. "If there's any indication that there's a spike (in infections), we'll work with our local commanders and go back to the digital platform that we did last year because safety is the most important thing we're concerned about."
Most schools plan to open on time and as scheduled, officials said. The exceptions, for now, are eight DODEA schools located in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, whose opening dates in August will shift up to three weeks due to increased coronavirus infection rates.
The virtual school program will begin Aug. 24 and parents when signing up their child for the program must agree to one full semester, with an option for the entire year.
DODEA's virtual high school for grades 9-12 is expanding to include elementary and middle school. Students enrolled in virtual school will not be able to participate in any extracurricular activities.
Schools will adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other guidelines, and coordinate with local military commanders, who review and update the health protection condition for their installations.
Social distancing will be a key component of protecting the health of students, staff and families, Brady said. The extent of social distancing to be implemented in schools depends on the health protection condition, also known as HPCON.
In guidance published online, DODEA laid out social distancing strategies in classrooms, cafeterias, playgrounds and other areas.
"There is no single solution to this challenge," the guidance said. "The diversity of our geography, building structures, HPCON levels and student needs necessitates a wide range of options."
In the classroom, options include spacing desks or seating at least 6 feet apart where possible, turning desks to face in the same direction and using tape on the floor to indicate proper distancing.
Mask wearing by students and staff will depend on the HPCON level and what distancing is possible.
Physical education classes could be conducted outdoors and schools may stagger mealtimes in the cafeteria, and avoid having students line up by creating an ordering method.
Schools would close if an installation went to HPCON Charlie -- indicating substantial and sustained community transmission of the virus.
Schools no longer give perfect attendance awards, so children won't be penalized for being ill, officials said.