For Military Children, Changing Schools In A Pandemic Presents New Challenges

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Tinker K-8 School: great effort to support military families
Airman 1st Class Danielle Quilla/US Air Force
At General Clarence Tinker K-8 School on MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., about four in five students are attending classes in person.

Moving around with her military family, Reagan McGary changed schools a lot, until a few years ago when she arrived at Plant High, a public school in Tampa where about 10 percent of kids are from military families.

Now 16, she hasn't forgotten what it's like to be the new kid. She said trying to make friends with coronavirus precautions in place means there's even more to worry about.

"With masks, we are not in close proximity. And we're not doing group work at school, which is hard, because I know I met a lot of my friends because I sat next to them and they talked to me," she said.

Choosing where to sit in the cafeteria is also increasingly fraught, due to social distancing.

"Since we have spaced out lunch tables, if you're a new kid, and someone invited you and there's not enough space, like where are you going to sit?"

Plant High reopened in late August. Seventy-five percent of the students attend in-person. The rest take their classes online. McGary runs a group called "Student 2 Student" which helps new kids get acclimated, whether they are in the military or not.

Courtesy Bayes Family/MadDill Air Force Base
The Bayes family moved in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Tampa, just as cases were reaching a summer peak in Florida.

"We try and pair them with someone," McGary said. "If they like chorus, we'll pair them with someone in their chorus class, or if they like football we will have them talk to the football coach. Stuff like that to make it easier, because it really is hard."

When military families move, parents often focus on schools and their extracurriculars as a way to help children settle into a new space.

This year, the pandemic forced many families of school-aged children to question whether it was safe to send their children to school in-person.

Chief Master Sergeant Timothy Bayes moved from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in July when coronavirus cases in Florida were spiking.

"Cheyenne didn't have a lot of cases at the time," he said. "So leaving Wyoming and heading to Florida while watching the news, we were a little nervous."

Their twin 12-year-old boys enrolled at Tinker K-8, a county-run public school on base at MacDill.

At Tinker, about four in five children are going to school in-person. The rest chose remote e-learning.

The twins' mom, Jennifer Bayes, said they are glad to be in school, but the experience isn't the same.

"They haven't really made friends as quickly as they normally do," she said. "They're still happy they're going to school but they did say it's different."

In some ways, coronavirus restrictions made the transition easier for the Bayes family. Their teenage daughter, Kaylee, wanted to join the dance team at nearby Plant High. Since tryouts were postponed in the spring, she auditioned in August and made the team, a chance she might otherwise have missed. Her dad said she never missed a beat.

"Our kids are far more resilient than I ever was at their age," Timothy Bayes said, "and they impress me every time we move. Like Kaylee, this is her third high school."

Tinker K-8 Principal Rachel Walters offers a different take on military kids.

"I don't know if they're necessarily more resilient, but they just have more exposure to the number of times that they have to change," said Walters.

Walters said that after her school observed a moment of silence on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a boy came to her needing to talk.

"That sparked something in one of the students who happened to be in third grade, and his dad would be deploying the next day," Walters said.

"And I actually was the person that had the opportunity to talk with him because I was available. He had those fears that his dad was going to war and he just wants his dad to come home. And a lot of our students have those fears."

Walters said her school offers extra counseling to help military children navigate those big life transitions.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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