U.S. Air Force Academy cadets are starting a fall semester unlike any other, as the school tries to prove on-campus classes can work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
About 4,400 students are back in class at USAFA in Colorado Springs, Colo., after the academy cut short the spring 2020 semester and sent all but the seniors home ahead of an early graduation.
Cadets and professors are tackling a fall semester where courses are half remote, half in person. Students are spaced out for indoor and outdoor instruction, and face masks are a new part of the uniform. Dining hall time was adjusted so students eat lunch over the course of two hours instead of 30 minutes.
USAFA has tried to keep the back-to-school spirit alive: the usual welcome picnic and softball game are out, socially distanced gatherings are in. Parents Weekend is cancelled.
Still, positive COVID-19 cases turned up over the Aug. 15 weekend, the first weekend after classes began Aug. 12. Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Andrews declined to say how many people have tested positive so far. The Pentagon releases case data by service but does not share where infections are happening within the armed forces.
“Positive COVID-19 cases remain considerably less than 1 percent of our Air Force Academy cadets and Preparatory School cadet candidates,” Andrews said in an Aug. 17 statement. “Proactive testing, almost 750 cadets per week, has allowed us to identify these positive cases quickly, and contact tracing and periodic surveillance testing will keep us informed moving forward.”
Most cases so far have stemmed from cadets who catch the virus before arriving on campus but don’t know they are infected and have mild or no symptoms.
The school randomly tests about 200 cadets and faculty each day, four days a week, and can batch-process 720 swabs for COVID-19 at a time. The biology department then singles out the samples that prove positive to find out who is infected.
USAFA also saw an outbreak over the summer when the freshman class arrived for basic training.
The academy did not provide students for interviews on the subject. No students responded to Air Force Magazine’s interview requests.
“We have a responsibility to continue to operate in the pandemic—not to say that it’s … without difficulty,” Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said during an Aug. 17 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. “There was no checklist on how to run a school in a worldwide pandemic.”
The academy can pull several levers to adjust restrictions as needed, Silveria said: where and when cadets can leave campus, how much teaching is online, which activities can go on as planned, and more. USAFA did not provide the cost of cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, and other coronavirus-related changes on campus.
The academy is closed to visitors, but staff can commute in and students can leave campus to pick up food. All USAFA teachers have the freedom to decide whether to offer their classes in person or online, and can work from home if they or someone they live with are at high risk for coronavirus complications.
“Overall, we’re very, very pleased to be back in the classroom,” said Col. Douglas Wickert, head of USAFA’s aeronautics department. “The cadets are very excited. I think at first, they thought, ‘Hey, I get to go home and attend the Air Force Academy from my parents’ basement.’ And then about a week into that, they realized, ‘There was a reason I left home at 18.’”
USAFA already knows how to handle in-person instruction, and it knows how to run classes entirely online. The hard part, Wickert said, is teaching a class in front of you while meeting the needs of a few students who are tuning in remotely from isolation.
Some parts of the syllabus had to be revamped to use new technology that lets professors virtually “write” on a student’s screen, or to replace certain hands-on projects with online tutorials.
“Particularly with the way we teach engineering, there were certain aspects where we would create an online tutorial that a cadet could watch at their own pace as they’re solving a similar type of multistep problem, and then they could go back and review,” Wickert said. “We’re actually able to remote in with a cadet and see what they’re seeing on the same computer screen, and show them how to use a DOD supercomputer to do computational fluid dynamics.”
If the school year goes well, USAFA can keep using these ideas in the classroom even if a COVID vaccine proves safe and reliable.
“We see the cadets showing up in class more prepared, because they do understand that in the challenges of the new COVID environment, that they’re responsible for their own learning,” making class time more effective, Wickert said.
Educators are trying to replicate the same classroom support as they would give cadets in person. With remote learning, it’s harder to see blank stares from students who don’t understand the lesson.
Professors can quiz students more often to make sure they understand the material, and set up chat rooms for small group work where teachers can “walk” around to help.
“The trick is really to put your finger on the pulse: How is the student progressing?” Wickert said. “Not all of them are necessarily going to be forthcoming.”
He said USAFA hasn’t run into any major technical difficulties with remote classes so far. After stress testing the Internet over the summer, the school says it has enough bandwidth to support the thousands of students and staff who are now videoconferencing at once.
Embracing distance learning could help the school more easily teach cadets who are often on the road for sports or out of the classroom for other reasons.
“I told my cadets that … you probably have had your last snow day, which of course was not a terribly popular sentiment,” Wickert said.
Extracurriculars are adapting to the pandemic era as well. The Mountain West Conference postponed fall sports, but teams are still training. Outdoor clubs like the rodeo team can largely operate as normal, while airmanship programs—a key part of the path toward becoming a pilot—are keeping pairs of instructors and students together for the entire program to minimize how many people each come into contact with in a cockpit.
If the school year goes well, USAFA hopes to graduate about 1,000 second lieutenants into the Air Force and Space Force next spring. That depends on whether the measures in place prove effective, and how responsive officials are if things go south.
Students who test positive are isolated in designated dormitories until they test negative or no longer have symptoms, and their contacts are quarantined as well. People may be isolated elsewhere on campus if cases continue to rise. Cadets continue to live with one or two others in their dorm rooms as usual.
“Medical personnel are available 24 hours a day,” Andrews said of the COVID dorm. “In both isolation and quarantine, cadets have meals delivered, laundry done for them, time outdoors for exercise, and access to mental health professionals 24 hours a day.”
More than 100 upperclassmen are living in hotels in downtown Colorado Springs to make more dormitory space available on campus, though the number of off-campus rooms needed may vary as cases fluctuate.
Still, there are no real consequences for breaking the rules—packing people into a dorm room or getting too close without a mask on. USAFA hopes that, as a military academy, its students will be more compliant than at other state and private schools. The academy is relying on its cadet wing and squadron commanders to model good behavior and reinforce rule-following.
“‘If we don’t do the things that we need to do, we won’t be able to stay here together,’” Wickert said. “That’s a very powerful message when it’s coming from your peer.”
The school will announce by Oct. 1 whether it will skip Thanksgiving break and send students home for the semester on Dec. 11—avoiding spreading the virus through additional travel—or to keep the break and end Dec. 17.