WASHINGTON -- While students in Department of Defense Education Activity schools might have imagined an early start to summer vacation as a result of the first of the brick-and-mortar schools shutting down in February due to COVID-19, the learning stopped for only a few days before instructors and students were back to reading, writing and arithmetic via digital learning efforts.
"What I'm so remarkably proud of is that our teacher workforce, our educational leaders in the field and our [information technology] specialists ... have all been remarkably resilient and effective in trying to provide quality instruction to kids that are stuck at home," DODEA Director Tom Brady said.
Across the U.S. military, DODEA runs 161 schools for about 71,000 pre-kindergarten through high school students worldwide. The first of those schools shut down in late February, said Patrick Martin, the acting chief of education operations at DODEA.
"We started in hot spots where host nation countries were beginning to take steps, so Daegu, [South Korea], was the first community to close on Feb. 20," Martin said. "Then Vicenza and Aviano in Italy followed just a few days later, in line with local authorities."
The last of the schools to close was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on March 25, he said.
But for students, the disruption in learning was short-lived, thanks to work by instructors, principals, district superintendents, and IT professionals with DODEA, Martin said.
"In all cases, we were able to transition from a closed school to the first learning activities being sent out in four days or fewer," he said. "I think that was a testament to the hard work on the part of our teachers and leaders in the field."
A large part of that online-learning capability comes through Google Classroom, Martin said. And while DODEA already had some online and digital learning capability, he said teachers were asking for Google Classroom capability, and the IT staffs were able to make that happen.
Between March 10 and March 25, he said, more than 16,000 Google classrooms were created and populated for students. That's essentially one online classroom created for each course that had been taught in shuttered brick-and-mortar classrooms.
"It wasn't perfect in four days, but they got it going in four days," he said. "I'd say it’s still not perfect, but it is amazing what talented and dedicated educators can do when they're put to the test and provided the tools that they need."
Michael Morris, a 3rd-grade teacher at a DODEA school in Vicenza, said he thinks he and his students have made a successful transition to digital learning.
"Overall, I would say that we are very successful, given the situation," he said. "There are varying degrees of success, and we are learning as we navigate through the virtual platform and making adjustments as we progress."
One adjustment is that what happens online is different from what can happen in a real classroom, Morris said.
"The digital learning platform looks much different than a day at school, at the elementary level," he said. "We strive to create assignments that students work on independently and without always being at the computer, which is challenging."
One concern is that students aren't spending all day online in front of the computer. It's not only not good for them, it's not good for learning either, Brady explained.
"About two weeks ago, we started looking at what do we need to do to make sure that we minimize digital fatigue," Brady said. "We put out some guidelines on how many hours that we're targeting for instruction for each kid, you know, by grade level, by elementary and high school ... what can we do to make sure that we’re still hitting standards, but we're not trying to overload parents and overload kids."
Teachers are mindful of student computer time when planning lessons to minimize the amount of time they need to be in front of the computer, Morris said, but they still meet with students online each day. "We meet with students in small groups or one-on-one for instruction, and we are constantly looking at ways to maximize that time for learning and keeping student engagement," he added.
David Rudy, the community superintendent for DODEA Europe South District, said that as part of the digital learning effort, students experience both "synchronous" and "asynchronous" learning. Synchronous learning involves face-to-face time with the teacher through online tools, while asynchronous learning involves students working on their own without involvement of the teacher.
"As part of the weekly digital learning plan, teachers publish their synchronous meeting schedule so that students and parents know exactly when and where they will be meeting with their teacher," Rudy said. In Italy, he said, that means students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will have two scheduled sessions per week with their instructors. For students in grades 6 through 12, these synchronous sessions happen during regularly scheduled class time once or twice a week for each student.
"Classwork and homework blend together in the asynchronous learning time, where students are engaging in learning activities that their teachers have designed for them to complete on their own time and schedule," Rudy said. "Of course, these activities have due dates and expectations attached to them, so students have to be diligent to 'be in school' and complete the assigned work as laid out by their teachers."
Another concern for educators is that while students might be learning online, and doing homework assignments as well, they are missing out on the important social aspects of being in class, being in school, participating in extracurricular activities, meeting with their teachers and friends, and developing the independence that comes with being away from their parents and on their own for a portion of each day.
"The thing that is pretty heartbreaking is you know students are going to miss proms, basketball championships, jazz competition, the kind of stuff that happens in schools all the time," Martin said. "Some of those kids put on an athletic uniform or stepped up to a microphone for the last time a couple of months ago, and they didn't know that was the last time. Students are grieving the loss of some of these experiences, and our hearts are broken for those kids."
Morris said that in his own classroom, and in some of the other classes at the school, there's an effort to try to replicate some of the socializing that happens in schools that is so important to the development of young students.
"We were very fortunate to have entered into this digital learning platform with relationships already built," he said. "But the school provides a community that you just can't capture in the virtual platform. We have informal Google Hangout [meetings] together twice a week, celebrate birthdays, and students constantly text, to continue those relationships and times to share, but as you know, sharing through a screen is just not the same as face-to-face interaction. Students are persevering, but overall, they are having a difficult time socially and emotionally ... and really missing school. I can say that for teachers, too."
Not all students who attend DODEA schools were able, at least initially, to get on board with digital learning. Some lacked the technology in their homes to participate. That's something DODEA worked hard to fix early on, so that every student could continue to learn, Martin said.
"Equity was the focus of the education directorate from the beginning of this process," he said. "Leaders in the field are hustling to get systems in place, to get teachers ready. We had a lot of honest conversations early on about what we can do to ensure that this model provides all students the best we can under these circumstances."
For some students, Martin said, DODEA had to provide technology to ensure they could get in on the online learning. That meant handing out more than 7,000 computing devices to those who needed them. "We issued hundreds of hotspots for students that needed more reliable internet connections, just to make sure everybody had the same kind of access," he said.
Rudy said students in Italy initially had been asked to use personal digital devices to participate in digital learning. But a survey was sent to families asking if they needed additional devices to support multiple children in the home working at multiple grade levels and subjects.
"As a result, the district offered families the use of school Chromebooks and wireless access points such as iPhones and hot spots, depending on community availability," he said. "To date, the district has distributed 577 Chromebooks and 44 wireless access points."
Martin cited a term in education called "the 'summer slide.'"
"It's pretty well documented that students lose a certain level of skill over the summer," he said. "So they leave, and they show us what they know in math and reading, specifically. They come back, and it's dipped a bit. They've forgotten some things -- the skills aren't where they used to be."
Martin said researchers are predicting something similar — a "COVID slide" — that's related to the time students are out of the classroom due to COVID-19 — even if they are learning things online. The COVID slide, he said, is likely to exacerbate the typical summer slide.
Brady said DODEA has plans to address this.
"No. 1 is that we're going to have an assessment — a test that's going to be administered at the beginning of the new school year — to be able to measure where students are in knowledge of standards," he said. Based on the results, he added, decisions can be made about what additional learning must happen to get students where they need to be.
Brady also said that over the summer, some additional learning opportunities will also be offered to attempt to help curb loss of skills.
"It's going to be a digital thing, focusing on reading and mathematics and on what we can do to help our students better prepare for opening, when it does come," he said.
Eventually, students will go back to their classrooms, though whether that comes in September or later is unknown. If a vaccine isn't available by then, but students are allowed to return to the classroom, things will need to be different than they have been in the past, Brady said.
"What kind of social distancing are we going to have to implement? What type of face masks?" he asked. "Until there's a vaccine, what flexibility do we have to build into our system? That's what’s keeping us up at night and trying to figure out options." Brady said that what happens in the fall will depend largely on geography, local military communities, and what's happening in host nations or communities.
"We're going to be remarkably flexible, and we're going to work with our partners," he said.
One segment of the DODEA community is going to be particularly affected by the COVID-19 social distancing: high school seniors. For many, graduating from high school will be one of the most significant events of their lives so far. For those students, it's unlikely they will have the traditional high school graduation they had been expecting.
School leaders and DODEA officials are working to make sure that those students still have a graduation experience that suits them best, Brady said.
"We asked [students] through the chiefs of staff and the three [DODEA] regions to hold virtual get-togethers in each one of the high schools and ask them what they would like to do in terms of digital graduations or graduation ceremonies," Brady said.
One school, he said, plans to have students come in with parents one at a time to get their diplomas, and they will wear their caps and gowns. Another school wants to have students come in and have photographers shoot pictures of them where they would be sitting in the room if they could all be there together, he said.
"We are working on trying to personalize the graduation event to meet the needs of the students and parents in this very, very strange time," Brady said.
Rudy said that in Italy, school principals are planning graduation ceremonies in conjunction with student councils and parent input.
"All DODEA schools in Italy are planning virtual graduation ceremonies that will be streamed on YouTube and/or Facebook," Rudy said. "Most schools appear to be settling on prerecorded content vs. live streaming to reduce any technical hiccups. We want these ceremonies to go off without a hitch, of course, for such an important event, especially given the impact of the pandemic on our students' senior year in high school."