As the national debate rages over how to safely reopen schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, one institution has forged ahead before most others: the United States Naval Academy.
Each year, the Naval Academy takes in roughly 1,200 students for a seven-week physical and mental training regimen known as Plebe Summer. The goal, according to the academy, is to turn civilians into midshipmen.
This summer, that process looks a little different. And has involved a lot of hand sanitizer.
For plebes, or freshmen, the changes began immediately. Incoming plebes were issued a face mask and tested for the virus and immediately began a 14-day quarantine period.
Each morning, they underwent a temperature check and a screening for possible symptoms of the virus. And, for the duration of the summer, all midshipmen are required to stay on the Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Maryland.
Academy officials say they hope that by keeping the students on campus, they will be able to contain the spread of the virus and inhibit its spread into the freshman class before the fall semester even begins.
Staff members, who are allowed to leave the campus, must fill out a daily screening form indicating they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 and have not been exposed to someone who has tested positive in the past 14 days. They are also asked to self-monitor for symptoms. A person can carry the virus and display no symptoms, however.
It appears that officials in Anne Arundel County, where the Naval Academy is located, have not been able to control the spread of the virus. Cases in the county initially peaked in May at 1,784 in a single day before hitting a low of fewer than 300 per day in early July. The number of cases per day has since crept back into the thousands, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
But the Naval Academy has assured parents and students that all possible precautions are being taken to keep the community safe.
Students who test positive for the virus will be isolated within a segmented section of Bancroft Hall, the massive dormitory complex that houses all of the academy’s midshipmen, and be monitored by on-site medical professionals. Other safety measures include spreading out report dates and times of plebes to facilitate social distancing, repeat coronavirus testing and distancing strategies to minimize the risk of exposure.
Part of that distancing strategy means that plebes are separated in companies of 40 to 50 students, which are then treated as “family units.” Unlike in previous summers, this year’s plebes are kept away from other companies, limiting social interaction and the possibility of virus spread.
The academy has also had to evaluate special events on a case-by-case basis, canceling many.
In a July 10 letter to parents and families, Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the superintendent of the academy, said the class of 2024’s plebe parents weekend, an annual tradition, was postponed indefinitely.
“As both a Naval Academy graduate and parent, I know this is very disappointing to all of you, given this is traditionally the first glimpse of your son or daughter’s transition from civilian to military life, to see where they spent the summer transforming, and your first opportunity to meet and visit with your plebe’s sponsors,” Buck said in the letter.
Buck promised parents that their plebe would be provided extra time on the weekend of Aug. 8 to communicate with them virtually.
Other military institutions have also cautiously forged ahead with summer training.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York confirmed last month that four cadet candidates who arrived for summer basic training tested positive for the coronavirus and would be isolated from their classmates for two weeks.
Those cadets arrived at West Point on a staggered schedule, like that of the Naval Academy. Face masks are required for cadets at all times during their four weeks of basic training, which was cut from six weeks because of the virus.
And as Air Force Academy cadets prepare for a return to Colorado Springs for classes in mid-August, the Air Force has adopted similar guidelines to the other services. Air Force cadets will be tested for the virus “multiple times” during their first two weeks on campus, and random testing will continue indefinitely in an attempt to catch asymptomatic cases early.
Any cadet who tests positive for the virus will be isolated. And, to accommodate the additional space required during that isolation, the Air Force will house approximately 400 cadets in hotels off the base for the fall semester, and possibly longer.