POLITICS

Teachers On U.S. Military Bases Abroad Say They're At Risk Of Coronavirus Exposure

They're conducting lessons online, but still being asked to do it from school.

Teachers at U.S. military schools in Europe say they’re at risk of coronavirus exposure because they’re being forced to physically report to work. 

Italy has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with more than 7,000 confirmed cases of the flu-like illness and 132 deaths, according to the World Health Organization

The Italian government closed schools in its northern region last month, and the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) followed suit for its facilities in the area. But the office asked teachers to continue to report to work so they could teach online from their classrooms. (Italy on Monday escalated its response to the COVID-19 outbreak by essentially shutting down the entire country, including schools.)

The DODEA’s policy could be dangerous for the roughly 700 teachers on military bases in Italy, Bahrain, Spain and Turkey who continue to report to work as the virus continues to spread, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said. She argued the Department of Defense ought to allow the instructors to teach virtually from home if they’re already doing classes online. 

“Asking teachers to report to work every day when students are at home is not only ridiculous, it’s also unsafe,” Weingarten said in a statement late last week. “It callously disregards the well-being of our educators and puts our teachers in the dangerous position of possibly spreading the virus in their community.” 

Weingarten and Overseas Federation of Teachers President Linda Hogan have complained in two letters to Department of Defense Education Activity director Tom Brady, who as of Monday had not responded.

But DODEA spokesman Will Griffin said the office’s policy has been a great help to the department’s mission of supporting the troops who protect U.S. interests abroad, and that teachers are no more at risk than other civilian employees. 

“Further, all travel to and from affected areas is extremely limited, approved at the senior level and only when deemed essential for mission accomplishment,” Griffin said. “In addition, our school buildings remain safe. They are being cleaned to standards established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Amy Ney, a biology teacher at Vicenza High School on the military base in Vicenza, said the day after the school’s closure was announced last month, she and 150 other teachers were called into a room for a briefing on social distancing, handwashing and how to teach classes online. Ney said most students have kept up with their lessons. 

A note from the superintendent for the Defense Department’s schools in southern Europe praised teachers in Italy and Bahrain, where schools are also closed, for their virtual teaching skills. 

“I cannot thank you enough for stepping up to create digital learning spaces for students,” Superintendent Michelle Howard-Brahaney said in an email last week.

Ney said she’s a cancer survivor and has been taking all the precautions she can. When she’s gone grocery shopping, for example, she’s worn rubber gloves and used cleaning wipes to disinfect the items she brings home. She said she and her colleagues are happy to keep doing their jobs, but she sees no reason to drag them to the school building to do so. 

“I felt devalued and I am bothered by the fact that the way that they’re handling this is making teachers feel like our lives and our children’s lives are less important than everybody else’s,” Ney told HuffPost in an interview. “We’re telling everybody else’s children to stay home.”