Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – When it comes to whether COVID-19 might find its way into the academy that trains noncommissioned officers here, the sergeant major who heads the school is mounting an all-out effort to counter the contagion to the extent anyone can.
Command Sgt. Maj. Joe C. Davis, commandant of the Henry Caro Noncommissioned Officer Academy, is putting in place an elaborate network of anti-COVID defenses, in close coordination with medical authorities at Fort Benning.
"My number one priority is: protect the force and ensure that we're following all COVID-19 procedures," said Davis. "We're gonna be vigilant and we're gonna attack this very quickly and we're gonna continue to train."
Those no-nonsense safeguards will be in place before students begin arriving from around the Army for classes, which start on various dates between July 7 and 20.
The measures include, among others:
• Testing all newly arrived students for COVID-19 and isolating them for 72 hours, or less if test results are in before then, and restricting them to school grounds for at least the first 14 days.
• Making the school grounds a restricted area with no-entry signs posted, and placing guards at the approaches to the academy.
• Cleaning classrooms six times daily, including mopping with bleach solution, wiping of surfaces, as well as use of hand sanitizer.
• Keeping students to groups of 16, in class or out, and running classes in two separate shifts daily.
Other measures include checking student temperatures three times daily, wearing cloth face coverings , and banning community drinking areas such as those where coffee is brewed.
In addition, social distancing will be maintained, not only in classrooms but in formations, including those to and from dining halls and classes.
And students' movements will be restricted: to one-person rooms for the first three days, to school grounds for the first 14, and to within Fort Benning for their entire stay.
"But in that 14 days we're gonna be training." said Davis. "And if it does pop up," he said of the virus, "we're gonna attack it aggressively. We're gonna bring in the right individuals from the medical community. We're gonna bring in the trace teams and we're gonna look at every individual that has been exposed.
"And I will tell ya, these are the cleanest classrooms I've ever seen in my time in the Army. I mean we're really focusing on hygiene." – Command Sgt. Maj. Joe C. Davis, commandant of the Henry Caro Noncommissioned Officer Academy, at Fort Benning.
"And that's why I'm keeping those groups of 16, and I'm not gonna let them get intermixed," he said. "So that if I do have a problem it's gonna be restricted to that group of 16.
"If after the first two weeks things look like they're going OK, we will look at conditions and we could loosen up the restrictions," said Davis.
"But the farthest you're gonna be allowed movement will be within Fort Benning," he said. "Nobody's gonna be allowed to leave the Fort Benning footprint."
The academy is part of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. MCoE trains Soldiers for service in the Infantry and Armor branches, as well as those who hope to become paratroopers, Rangers, and snipers.
The role of the academy is to train Infantry and Armor noncommissioned officers – commonly known in the military as NCOs.
Nearly 450 students are scheduled to arrive this month for training. Most of the academy's classes run about seven-and-a-half weeks, while the shortest takes one month, the longest, 12 weeks.
On arrival, students will be taken straight to a troop medical clinic near the academy and tested with nasal swabs.
"So, you leave your unit, you're gonna fly through multiple airports coming here," said Davis. "So when you get on the ground here, we're gonna give you 100 percent COVID-19 testing. That's the first thing we're gonna do.
"The nasal swab is the gold standard" for COVID-19 testing, said Davis, "and that's what we'll be using while we're here."
Once tested, students will be issued a computer already uploaded with course-related material, and assigned a barracks room of their own, where each is to remain for 72 hours, unless test results are in sooner.
"And while you're up in your room for 72 hours or until the test results come back, you're gonna get to log on, you're gonna get to go ahead and start working through some of the admin stuff, you're gonna start working through some of the lesson plans, on your own," Davis said.
Classes in two daily shifts will avoid having "a huge population in one place at one time," said Davis.
"I have the first group going there early in the morning," he said. "And they work till a little bit after lunch. And then next group comes in a little bit after lunch and they work into the evening.
"What that does, I'm not putting as many people on top of each other for a short period of time, I'm kind of spreading that out through the day," he said.
Cleanings will follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and each student will be given cleaning duties, he said.
"We're mopping the classroom before, during the class, and after the class," Davis said. "So we're cleaning the classroom six times a day, sanitizing the classroom and the equipment – computers, doorknobs and fixtures in the restroom. We're cleaning the entire floor with bleach solution. We're cleaning all the tabletops with bleach solution. All the keyboards are being sanitized.
"And then the next group comes in, they clean before, during and after," he said. "And when they walk out of there, it's a sterile room," he said. "And we wait on the next crew to come in.
"We're following the CDC guidelines as it pertains to trying to kill the COVID-19 virus if it happens to be on anything," he said. "And I will tell ya, these are the cleanest classrooms I've ever seen in my time in the Army. I mean we're really focusing on hygiene."
Spacing precautions will be applied even to which classrooms are used or left vacant.
"I've got one classroom with 16, with a classroom next to it empty," Davis said. "With another classroom on the other side of that. So I've got an empty classroom between each class."
Physical distancing will also apply to moving from place to place in military formation.
"We're gonna basically get three ranks, and we're gonna separate those ranks across the front by 6 feet," said Davis. "So we're gonna have about 12 feet across the front, three ranks. And distancing behind each person is gonna be about 6 to 8 feet. We call that an 'extended formation,' and that's gonna keep folks spread out."
At the dining hall the students can pick up a hot plate of food.
"And then we're gonna move you back where you can eat outside, 6 to 8 feet apart from individuals, or you can go back into your room and eat," Davis said.
"And it's just gonna be groups of 16," he said. "That way there's nobody crossing each other. No group of 16 ever comes in contact with another group of 16."
To further protect the academy from the virus, especially from casual passersby, Davis will tightly control who is admitted to the two-block area the academy occupies.
"I always have like, guys wanna wander through here," said Davis. "I have folks wanna park in my parking' lot and walk to other areas. So just for the health of everybody involved, I'm just gonna kind of restrict this area here to keep folks out for now."
Staff will post red-and-white signs that read: "RESTRICTED AREA NCO Academy Students and Cadre Only."
"That's gonna be posted around the two blocks that you're in," he said. "I'm not gonna let people in and out of this area. I'm gonna have NCOs pulling guard duty up on the main avenues of approach coming in and out. So part of you being in the academy is, you're gonna have to pull a little bit of guard duty.
"I don't want contaminated folks coming in here," Davis said, "and I don't want to see anybody contaminated."
Any students who may test positive for COVID-19, whether in the first three days or at any point while at the academy, will be driven to an isolation facility on the Kelley Hill section of Fort Benning, where on-site medical staff will monitor them daily.
The academy plans to have any COVID-positive student study while in that facility, as long as medical staff approves, said Davis.
"We will provide everything that they need for their stay out there while they continue with the course," he said. "We have a plan to get our VTC monitors that we're gonna be able to place in their rooms. It's gonna be the same instructor teaching the same class," he said.
"The Soldier's gonna receive the same course material, be responsible for the same lessons and the same testing that the rest of the course is responsible for," he said.
At the same time, a trace team from Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital will also go into action if a student tests positive.
"We'll sterilize the barracks room that they're in, and then we will let the trace team work through who they have had contact with," Davis said.
MCOE Surgeon Col. Ethan Miles reviewed the academy's COVID-19 mitigation plan.
"So we're tied at the hip" for medical coordination, Miles said.
The thoroughness of the academy's plan, including its limits on student movement, fit the needs of the situation, Miles said.
"The main focus is doing training in a safe way, minimizing impacts to training, and making sure both the health of the students and the health of the cadre – civilian and military – is protected," he said.
"At the end of the day," said Davis, "our priority remains the health and safety of the force and, number two, we've got to continue to push our Soldiers to professional military education.
"That's what we're charged with, and we're gonna move forward with it the safest way we can," he said. "But we're still providing the same quality of training that any class prior to this has received, and no standards have changed here. It's the same course we've always run. We're still training them on Fort Benning."