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Being The 'New Kid' At School In Coronavirus Pandemic Brings Challenges, Even For Military Children Accustomed To Change

A family photo of Chief Master Sergeant Timothy Bayes and his wife and four children, seated on a lawn
MacDill Air Force Base/Bayes family
The Bayes family moved in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Tampa, just as cases were reaching a summer peak in Florida

Where to sit at lunch? How to make friends while wearing a mask? How to cope with parents deploying in uncertain times? These are questions military children face during these times.

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% of kids are from military families.

Now 16, she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be the new kid. She says trying to make friends now, 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 (to eat with them) and there's not enough space, like where are you going to sit?”

Plant High reopened in late August. Here, 75% of the students attend in-person, according to school district data. The rest take their classes online.

McGary runs a group at Plant High called Student 2 Student which helps new kids get acclimated, whether they are in the military or not.

“We try and pair them with someone. 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,” McGary said.

When military families move, the parents often focus on schools and their extracurriculars, as a way to help children settle into a new space. But in some places, sports teams are on hold, so that's not an option.

And many families have grappled with the question of whether it's safe to send their children to school in-person, or if they should choose remote learning.

Chief Master Sergeant Timothy Bayes moved from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in July at a time when coronavirus in Florida was spiking.

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

His twin 12-year-old boys enrolled at Tinker K-8, a 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 boys’ mom, Jennifer Bayes, says 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, I mean, 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 says she never missed a beat.

“Our kids are far more resilient than I ever was at their age. And they impress me every time we move. Like Kaylee, this is her third high school,” he said.

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.

After her school recently observed a moment of silence on the anniversary of the Sept. 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," she recalled.

"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 says her school offers extra counseling to help military children navigate those big life transitions.