Defense school officials have identified the Fort Knox Middle/High School counselor who died from COVID on Sept. 15 as Pamela Harris.
Harris had tested positive for COVID and had been receiving medical treatment at a local hospital, said Will Griffin, a spokesman for the Department of Defense Education Activity. It is the only death from COVID among DoDEA employees to date, he said. There have been no COVID deaths among students, he said.
Harris has worked for DoDEA since 2001 as a teacher and a counselor, Griffin said.
“Our deepest sympathy goes out to her family, friends and co-workers and we thank the medical professionals who worked to save her life in the face of this virus,” he said, in a statement. “She was a beloved and valuable member of our community, and she will be deeply missed.”
According to Harris’ obituary, she was 60, lived in Radcliff, Ky., and was retired from the Army. She is survived by three sons, five grandchildren and four sisters.
On the tribute wall of the Chism Family Funeral Home website, messages were pouring in from family, friends, students, parents, co-workers, workout and gym class friends and others, describing her compassion, love of her work, her inspiring nature and encouragement as a mentor. “Ms. Harris touched the lives of children, friends and parents at Ft. Knox with care and compassion. She loved helping children in DoDEA and she will be missed by many,” wrote Christy Huddleston, DoDEA Southeast District Superintendent.
Meanwhile, a union representing teachers and other staff members of schools worldwide operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity is calling for officials to immediately move all schools to remote learning operations, citing Harris’ death from COVID.
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In a statement announcing the death on Thursday, the Federal Education Association said it ‘was completely preventable,” calling for Tom Brady, director of DoDEA, to move all DoDEA schools to remote operations immediately. “Director Brady must take immediate action to make sure a tragedy such as this never happens again,” said Diane Gibbs, FEA director for the DoDEA Americas school system, which includes the four schools Fort Knox, Ky. Harris was not a member of the union, said FEA spokesman Gary Hritz. There are about 15,000 employees working for DoDEA worldwide; about 7,000 educators and support staff are in the union’s bargaining units.
It’s not known whether the counselor contracted COVID at the school, Gibbs said. DoDEA referred questions about that to Fort Knox, and information was not immediately available.
Gibbs said that the school system switched to remote learning in early September after Harris and several other school employees reported COVID symptoms. The FEA has been urging DoDEA for months to open in remote-only status in the fall, avoiding in-person classes for the safety of students, parents, teachers and other employees. DoDEA has given parents the option of having their child attend the DoDEA virtual school, a separate entity.
Gibbs said there have been at least six educators in Fort Knox High School who have had COVID-related symptoms, after the schools opened on Aug. 24, prompting the schools at Fort Knox to switch to remote learning beginning Sept. 4. The Fort Knox schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning Sept. 21; it’s not known if that plan will change.
When school started this fall, 25 of 50 DoDEA schools in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico opened remotely; overall about one-third of schools around the world opened remotely. Those numbers have fluctuated.
At this point, DoDEA officials have not plans to move all schools to remote learning, said DoDEA spokesman Griffin. Those decisions continue to be made on an installation-by-installation basis, he said. School officials work closely with military public health and military commands regarding decisions about whether to move schools to remote learning and back to in-person, with the health protection condition levels of an installation being the baseline for the decisions, along with other factors. The installation commander can bring all the resources together in one place, such as public health, medical providers, law enforcement, and preventive medicine, to make decisions for the installation as a whole.
“We will continue to partner with our installation commands, parents and students to provide our children with quality education in the safest and most effective manner possible,” he said.
“We are continuing in our efforts to keep everyone safe and get back to teaching and learning in a safe environment that best supports student achievement,” Griffin said. “DoDEA school operations impact the readiness of our military to complete their mission. And we must continue to meet our mission and support readiness by providing military-connected students with a quality education.”
There are protocols for closing and cleaning schools in the event COVID cases have been reported. Installation health officials and other leaders were also involved in the planning for reopening in the fall, including the safety and health protocols, requirements for social distancing, and other measures.
As of Sept. 14, there were 611 students attending Fort Knox Middle/High School in grades 7 through 12. At the 159 brick-and-mortar DoDEA schools around the world, there are about 66,000 students attending school with their teacher either remotely or in-person. Those numbers don’t include the DoDEA virtual school.
“It should be clear to all that [health protection condition] levels lag behind actual conditions on the ground,” Gibbs said. “HPCON levels do not reflect the dangerous health conditions on the base. Before those HPCON levels are deemed bad enough to require remote operation, the virus has already begun spreading. ..
“Cases have been springing up elsewhere throughout DoDEA. It is only a matter of time before another preventable and unnecessary death occurs,” she said.
DoDEA’s Griffin said the health and safety of DoDEA students and employees “is always our primary focus.”
About Karen Jowers
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.