Physical Education Teacher Chris Guest leads U.S. elementary school students on their first lap around the track for the Terry Fox Run at the AFNORTH International School, Brunssum, the Netherlands Sept. 29, 2022. Annual events, such as the school-wide cancer research fundraiser run, were canceled when pandemic restrictions began in early 2020 but are now reappearing on Benelux school calendars. (Courtesy photo by Erie ten Doesschate)

School programs, activities reviving after pandemic

By Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs

USAG BENELUX - BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – With the first grading quarter complete, school activities and programs in the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux footprint are showing strong signs of revival from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the region, students have returned to regular socializing in the cafeterias and on playgrounds as well as collaborating between classes and international sections.

Plans have commenced for field trips and calendars are refilling with sports, events, and a multitude of activities and clubs. The schools are open once again to visitors.

“I hope this year’s theme is ‘a return to normalcy’ as we re-implement the multiple activities for student connections and engagement,” said AFNORTH U.S. Middle/High School Principal Heather Rhine. “It should be a dusting off of pre-COVID traditions.”

Beginning in March of 2020, school activity offerings were limited due to the pandemic. During that time, visitors and volunteers in the schools were also restricted.

Last year, school sports schedules began to show more signs of regularity and other activities also slowly started cropping up again as social distancing measures began to relax.

Beginning the 2022-2023 school year with in-person orientations and open houses in August was another step towards pre-pandemic ‘normalcy’

“Our parents have been very gracious the last couple of years of trusting us with their children without being able to be inside the building or meet face-to-face with their student’s teacher,” said Chi Anne McGrew, assistant principal for the SHAPE American Elementary School in Belgium.

This year, the Brussels American School (BAS) in Belgium welcomed first-time students through their new Student 2 Student initiative. The program is designed to orientate new Families to the school with private tours of the facility before classes began.

Incoming Families were heavily impacted during the pandemic because orientations could not take place to ease transition into a new community.

“Many new Families were from places like Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine, and Georgia,” said Leigh DeFazio, BAS athletic director and Student 2 Student sponsor. “Helping these new students not only start a new school year but acclimate to our American school setting and host nation of Belgium is our number one goal.”

Once the back-to-school welcome was complete, faculty and staff took a running start into resurrecting traditions and programs from pre-pandemic times.

Canadian fourth/fifth grade teacher Vikki Priddle (left) and U.S. fifth grade teacher Debbie Watts work together to throw a pumpkin protected in a box out of a third-story window at AFNORTH International School’s Pumpkin Drop event Oct. 31, 2022, in Brunssum, the Netherlands. A fifth-grade project, students were assigned a pumpkin to protectively package for the drop. Events such as this one have returned to school calendars in the Benelux as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have loosened this year. (U.S. Army photo by Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs)

For the past 12 weeks, Families have seen a resurgence of events on the schools’ calendars. Many have already taken place in the first quarter, and the coming months hold activities such as a robotics club, school musicals, and increased student council functions.

For AFNORTH International School, September welcomed the return of the annual Terry Fox Run, sponsored by the Canadian section. The entire school and visitors ran laps Sept. 29 around the school track to raise money for cancer research. The commemorative event also celebrated Fox’s life, with his dedication to raising cancer awareness by running 3,339 miles cross-country after his own diagnosis.

Fall sports teams finally enjoyed full homecoming festivities—the first since 2019—complete with pep rallies and after-game dances.

The games themselves are back to full capacity for spectators this year. Inviting traveling teams and loading up busses to visit other schools is also back on the schedule.

“Traveling all over Europe and welcoming hundreds of fans back into our stadiums, forest, courts, and gym is very exciting after the pandemic,” said DeFazio.

SHAPE American Elementary School held their first large event Oct. 26 to welcome Families back into the school alongside their students.

With nearly 1,000 participants and more than 25 activities, the evening’s Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) event featured a spooky theme. Student detectives helped to solve the Case of the Missing Candy Jar, student guides maneuvered their mini robots through an intricate maze and demonstration rockets launched from the parking lot.

U.S. fifth grade teacher Carlos Aponte holds up a cracked pumpkin to show the results of the students’ efforts to package it safely for a three-story fall at AFNORTH International School’s Pumpkin Drop event Oct. 31, 2022, in Brunssum, the Netherlands. This event is one of many that have returned to school calendars in the Benelux as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have loosened this year. (U.S. Army photo by Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs)

“The event was a huge success, with parents and students alike regaling their favorite events,” said the STEAM event coordinator Therese Blanchard.

With programs reviving, parent volunteers are more integral than ever and schools in the Benelux encourage parents to go through the volunteer clearance steps in order to join in.

"We are fortunate to have parents anxious to volunteer in our schools," said McGrew. "It’s been a whirlwind first quarter...[and] we are looking forward to plans for the spring."

The front offices at each school have packets and information available for prospective applicants. Parent Teacher organizations (PTA, PTO, PTSO) have already begun planning fundraisers and school events, and additional help is always needed.

Parents are also encouraged to delve into the advisory board meetings to voice concerns, offer suggestions, and provide feedback. Meeting locations and times can be found in the front offices.

As programs continue to ramp up, administrators are excited for the for the grading periods to come.

“I hope we all can [continue to] look forward to a more normal school year full of the enriching activities and opportunities we used to have,” said Rhine.

Visit the USAG Benelux Schools webpage for more information and school contact information