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Can Military Academies Serve As A Road Map For Reopening Colleges?

"Plebe summer" detailers, or trainers, lead a company of incoming freshman students — the "plebes" — at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
"Plebe summer" detailers, or trainers, lead a company of incoming freshman students — the "plebes" — at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

In Annapolis, Md., young men and women in crisp white uniforms and white masks are doing what students here have been doing for 175 years — taking their first steps to becoming officers in the U.S. Navy.

These exercises are a part of the traditional "plebe summer," an intensive crash course that prepares first-year students for the transition to military life. They learn how to salute and march as a unit, along with lots of new lingo: floors are called "decks," toilets are "heads," and the students are "midshipmen."

Unlike civilian colleges, the U.S. military academies have a mandate — they owe about 1,000 young officers to the armed forces every spring. When the academies were forced to send students home in March, they immediately began planning to bring students back.

A plebe summer detailer holds the door for a company of plebes as they enter a building on campus.
A plebe summer detailer holds the door for a company of plebes as they enter a building on campus.

"The attitude is 'We do not have a choice. We must make this work,' " explained Andrew Phillips, academic dean of the United States Naval Academy.

A bottle of hand sanitizer is attached to a water canteen on a freshman's belt.
A bottle of hand sanitizer is attached to a water canteen on a freshman's belt.

Classes officially begin next week in an online format. Phillips says they'll build their way back to in-person classes as quickly as possible.

And it's not just Annapolis. At the Army's West Point campus in New York state, and the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, educators and students are, for the most part, settling back in to their daily routines.

A group of scientists and mathematicians at the Air Force Academy helped make it happen. They're called the Pandemic Math Team.

"We were sitting around one day in March like 'we can do this,' " says Maj. Erin Almand, an assistant professor of biology at the academy. "It's not a technically hard thing to screen people for this virus."

So Almand and her colleagues on the team shared their findings and recommendations with the other service academies. Their crowning achievement? The "fizzle equation."

The "fizzle equation" says that in a closed population — like the service academies — you have to do a certain amount of weekly testing to catch an outbreak in time for it to "fizzle out." For the Air Force Academy, its calculations determined that means testing 15% of military staff and students weekly — or about 750 tests a week.

"Our situation is admittedly easier than a lot of universities because we can do the testing in a matter of hours, rather than having to send results off and wait for a couple of days," says Col. Doug Wickert, a professor of aeronautics who also heads the Pandemic Math Team.

The school can have test results back so quickly because they're running them in-house. Air Force Academy professors volunteer their time each week to run the tests. The other academies are processing tests at nearby military hospitals with similar turnaround times.

(The other two U.S. service academies, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the Merchant Marine Academy in Nassau County, N.Y., have much smaller enrollments but are also conducting surveillance testing on military staff and students.)

The Air Force Academy is using a method called pool testing to decrease the number of actual tests that must be run each week. Even though the academy will swab 750 people, it will run only about 90 tests. Each test will be a group of eight swabs. If one comes back positive then the academy will retest all the swabs individually.

And that's just the weekly surveillance testing. Students have been returning to the Colorado Springs campus all summer in waves. Each wave, or cohort, underwent a two-week quarantine period in their dorm rooms. Over the course of quarantine they were tested on days 0, 7, 10 and 14.

Midshipmen participate in fire safety training on campus in Annapolis.
Midshipmen participate in fire safety training on campus in Annapolis.

The Air Force Academy was the first service academy to have all of its students back, and so far, officials say there has been no community spread.

At West Point, located 60 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, cadets have also been arriving all summer. Their arrivals were choreographed from the moment they stepped back on campus:

"We had arrival times planned, so when they showed up to get dropped off they were entering their quarantine group," explained West Point's Commandant, Brig. Gen. Curtis A. Buzzard. Virtually every step was mapped out in those first two weeks: "Groups had assigned stairwells, hallways and bathrooms."

Senior Evan Walker, cadet basic training commander, marches with freshmen as they display their motto on a 12-mile march after finishing up four weeks of basic training on Monday in West Point, N.Y.
Senior Evan Walker, cadet basic training commander, marches with freshmen as they display their motto on a 12-mile march after finishing up four weeks of basic training on Monday in West Point, N.Y.

On top of the precision and military discipline, West Point is in many ways made for quarantine. There's a grocery store, an elementary school and full neighborhoods for teachers and faculty inside its gates.

Cadet Evan Walker says that with all the restrictions, she feels much safer back on campus than she did while she was home in Houston. "When I was at home, people were just acting like there was nothing wrong," she said. "People refused to wear masks or stay at home, which was kind of frustrating to me, honestly. So being here — I appreciate it."

Cadet Evan Walker says she feels safer back on the West Point campus than she did while she was home in Houston.
Cadet Evan Walker says she feels safer back on the West Point campus than she did while she was home in Houston.

In Annapolis, the returning midshipmen are still trickling in — all students should be out of quarantine by next week. Since the campus is smaller and more centrally located than West Point's, the restrictions during quarantine were severe.

"Asking somebody to stay confined to a room for two weeks and not go to their friends' rooms or go around the campus to see people they haven't seen in months," says senior Corwin Stites, "is a very difficult thing to do."

Stites, who's originally from Fayetteville, Ark., is a rising senior at the Naval Academy. He returned to campus in early July to start his quarantine period.

He said coming back was a little nerve-wracking, knowing how many restrictions would be placed on the students. "It seemed to me and a lot of my classmates that if we came back the chances we would be allowed to leave again were ... low to none."

But Stites, and other students I spoke with in Annapolis and at West Point, said they knew what they signed up for.

Senior Cameron Kinley is class president and a member of the Navy football team. He said being back for the long haul isn't so bad because he had extra time at home with family.

"I'm thankful that we had that time to be home during the quarantine because that was actually the longest I've been home since I came to the academy."

Rising senior Corwin Stites (left) is a plebe summer detailer at the Naval Academy. He returned to campus in early July. Rising senior Cameron Kinley (right) is class president and a member of the Navy football team.
Rising senior Corwin Stites (left) is a plebe summer detailer at the Naval Academy. He returned to campus in early July. Rising senior Cameron Kinley (right) is class president and a member of the Navy football team.

Officials at the service academies are hopeful that all the discipline, all the testing, all the restrictions will get them through the year safely.

Most faculty interviewed were optimistic that their reopening strategy could transition to civilian universities, but the students — Stites, Walker and Kinley — aren't so sure.

They said the advantages of the academies: discipline, lack of individualism, gated campuses — were huge factors in the success so far. But when thinking about their peers at civilian universities, they struggle to see it working.

"My little brother is in college, so I understand the procedures that they're taking," Kinley explained, "but they're nowhere near the precautions that we're taking at the Naval Academy."

And even then, with all these rules in Annapolis, you can see students sitting 3 feet away from each other, rather than 6. Students running without masks stopping briefly to chat. Even retirees walking their dogs through the open-air campus without masks.

Even with military precision, there are things you can't control.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Plebes participate in fire safety training.
Plebes participate in fire safety training.

Corrected: August 13, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect rank for Curtis A. Buzzard. He is a brigadier general, not general.