By Becca Castellano
USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs
Due to COVID-19, the upcoming school year will look a little different for U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart families. The Department of Defense Education Activity is offering parents and students a choice between returning to campus or attending online classes.
Creating a COVID-free environment for all students to learn in has been the mission at every level of DoDEA leadership since May, said Steven Sanchez, DoDEA Europe East Superintendent.
“This is all we are focused on,” Sanchez said. “Our preparation for how sanitized our schools will be, for the procedures and protocols that we need in place, the types of instruction we can offer, we’ve been working on this and will continue to work on it. Because we realize that it will change as the world situation changes too.”
Stuttgart Elementary School Principal Sonja Rodriguez said her staff is working to remove nonessential furniture to create spaces where children can remove masks throughout the day. She is also working with the transportation office to clear out bus parking lanes and create extra space to hold outdoor activities and recess.
“To the greatest extent practical, our students will attend recess,” Rodriguez said. “That means in the snow, too. So, we are asking parents to make sure their kids have appropriate winter attire because the kids love to go out and play in winter too.”
Rodriguez said she feels confident that her staff and parents will unite to help students understand why these changes are happening.
“We don’t want to scare the children or make everything seem like a bad thing so it’s important that the parents and our teachers work together to make this a positive experience,” said Rodriguez.
Stuttgart High School Principal Rick Renninger is also considering ways to hold some classes outside when possible and open the auditorium for extra seating during the three lunch sessions the high school will have. Students will follow a one-direction flow when transiting between classes and will wear masks when physical distancing cannot be observed.
“If I was doing this job anywhere else, my biggest concern would be that students weren’t going to follow the rule. But, I have never been able to trust a community as much as I’ve trusted these students,” Renninger said. “I truly do believe that everyone is going to follow the guidelines that we’ve established because they know that we all have to do it to keep everyone safe.”
Parents can see exactly how schools will mitigate risks at each Health Protective Condition Level by visiting DoDEA.edu/returntoschool. Sanchez encourages every parent to read the “Ensuring a Safe and Healthy Return to School” guide at the website above to make an informed decision when registering their children.
Whichever option parents chose they can be confident their child will receive the same quality education DoDEA prides itself on.
“We’ve had a very successful virtual high school for over a decade now and we will be expanding that success to take on all our virtual classes,” Sanchez said. “We are purchasing a curriculum that is already aligned to our standard. It is high-quality and it is going to be interesting and engaging for kids.”
Virtual learning will not be the same as what parents and students experienced last spring, Sanchez said. Elementary students will likely have three different teachers: for math and science, one for English and social studies and a third for electives. While the teachers may be from a different school they will likely be in the same region as their students.
Students will not attend every class every day. Their semester will be laid out in advance and weekly modules will open on Monday so that parents and students can see requirements early and reach out to teachers during their scheduled office hours for any needed help.
The new set-up will offer a change for many teachers as well. Sanchez said some are being reassigned and others have volunteered to bring the virtual school to life. He added that all teachers will be specially equipped for this new challenge.
“We have had great success with our virtual high school and we will train our transferring and new teachers to make sure they’re up to speed and able to deliver this content effectively,” Sanchez said.
Whichever option parents choose, they must commit to it for the whole semester. He explained that once registration ends, classrooms and schools will be arranged to accommodate the number of students enrolled in face-to-face classes and will not be able to add more. The same policy applies for virtual classrooms to ensure teachers can give each student adequate time for help and feedback.
Students will have the option to switch for the second semester during another registration period in the fall.
In the event that a COVID-19 resurgence forces a school to close for six days or more, students and their teachers on campus will return to remote learning, as they did in the spring. Virtual school will continue uninterrupted.
“This has been and will continue to be a very close partnership between DoDEA and our garrison commanders and health officials,” explained Sanchez. “If they decide they need to go to HPCON-C then we drop back into remote learning and the students will remain with their teachers if that happens.”
The DoDEA team is working to provide a safe environment to reunite staff and students for the academic year 2020-2021. Rodriguez said all of the efforts will be worth the result.
“I’m most looking forward to interacting with the kids again,” she said. “It’s going to be hard not to be able to give them all high-fives, but we will overcome that. Plus, there’s never a bad day in elementary school because if you think you’re having a bad day, you just go visit kindergarten.”
Sanchez also believes that students and teachers are ready to get back into the classroom.
“One of the things we’ve learned this spring is that kids and teachers alike miss that time together,” he said. “And it won’t be the exact same with physical distancing requirements, but they can still see each other and interact. It’s the best thing that we can all do right now to give them that socialization while keeping everyone safe.”