As the first day of classes at the U.S. Military Academy began Monday morning, the members of the Corps of Cadets walked throughout Central Area in their as-for-class uniforms. Charcoal gray shirts over gray pants, with black shoes and gray garrison caps, it was a sea of similarity that repeats every August.
This year though, the cadets had one additional piece of their uniform they are required to wear — a black mask. Unlike their caps that they take off as they enter buildings, the cadets are required to wear the mask both while walking to class and while sitting in their classrooms.
The simple piece of fabric covering their noses and mouths may be the most visible change, but it is only one of many measures put in place to protect the Corps of Cadets and allow them to live on post during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Brigade Tactical Department has been planning for this moment — the first day of class — since April, but the process really went into effect in mid-July when the members of the Class of 2024 arrived for Reception Day. Over the next month, the rest of the Corps slowly began to return for various portions of Cadet Summer Training, whether it was to serve as members of the cadet cadre or to be trained themselves.
The staggered arrivals throughout the summer allowed for a multi-stage reception process that included each cadet being tested for COVID-19 as he or she arrived at West Point. Those who tested positive where then placed into isolation and those who tested negative went through a 14-day controlled monitoring period to watch for symptoms.
Because of those measures, the academy was able to begin classes Monday with relative certainty that the Corps of Cadets is virus free.
“Every cadet completed the controlled monitoring phase,” Brigade Tactical Officer Col. Kyle Marsh said. “This allows the entire Corps to operate with more freedom of maneuver. With the conditions set, the Corps could safely occupy the barracks for the academic year.”
As the academic year begins, West Point is operating at Health Protection Condition Bravo with all 4,400 members of the Corps living in the barracks. HPCON Bravo means there is a low to moderate threat of community transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Protective measures will remain in place until West Point is at HPCON Zero.
Each decision that was made prior to the Corps returning and as it enters the academic year was based on a detailed risk assessment, Marsh said. Each activity, he added, was assessed critically on the basis of what is a “must do, should do and like to do.” Marsh identified several must dos for the academic year, such as, providing a safe and COVID-19 free barracks for cadets to live in, feeding the Corps in a safe manner and enabling the cadets to do physical training.
Keeping the barracks safe will require a constant partnership between cadet leadership and the tactical officers who oversee each of the cadet companies. Room inspections will check for room cleanliness including making sure cadets are constantly disinfecting surfaces and doing laundry to support good hygiene. The TACs and cadet leadership will also inspect shared cadet areas to make sure they are being kept clean and all protocols are being followed.
“With respect to nonpharmaceutical intervention, the Corps’ disciplined use will continue to protect the force and enable the academic year to be successful,” Marsh said. “We’ve achieved a clean environment through a lot of collective efforts across the academy. That doesn’t mean (the virus) won’t come but we’re happy with what has been achieved. Now, we must stay disciplined.”
Along with living in the barracks, a major issue they had to work through was how to feed the entire Corps of Cadets in the mess hall.
The mandatory meal has been switched from lunch to breakfast this year to accommodate changes to the academic schedule. That daily meal will mark the one time the entire Corps is together in the same indoor space.
“The academic year requirements presented a major problem for USMA — how do you safely feed 4,400 cadets with healthy options and avoid the need for numerous boxed meals?” Marsh said. “This problem required months of analysis and many options were considered. The challenge for all of the planners was, can we safely sit the normal 12 cadets per table at close distance for a short period of time? The detailed assessment was that we could with minimal risk (of spreading the virus).”
During mandatory meals, cadets will have assigned seats which allows for easy contact tracing if a cadet starts to develop symptoms. For optional meals, Marsh said they have put a system in place that will track who cadets sit and eat with. That information will be used to contact trace any possible exposures.
For physical fitness, Arvin Cadet Physical Fitness Center is restricted to cadets only use until West Point reaches HPCON Zero. In other years, staff and faculty were allowed to use the gym outside of cadet only hours. To reduce crowding, the academy has worked to set up additional outdoor workout areas cadets can use while the weather allows.
Because physical fitness is a key part of preparing the cadets to serve as officers in the Army, the Department of Physical Education has worked to develop plans for cadets to train safely. New guidelines have been put in place for DPE courses such as boxing and combat applications which don’t allow for social distancing. The fall brigade athletics calendar has also been adjusted.
Only outdoor sports will be offered this semester including soccer, volleyball, flag football and team handball. Cadets will also only play one time a week instead of twice.
“The Competitive Sports Program at the U.S. Military Academy is integral to developing the warrior ethos in leaders of character,” Master of the Sword Col. Nicholas Gist said. “As we have throughout the Cadet Summer Training period during physical readiness training, execution of obstacles courses and administration of the Army Combat Fitness Test, nonpharmaceutical interventions are applied when appropriate and cleaning protocols continue with regard to communal equipment.”
Changes were also made to the 16 competitive club athletic teams sponsored by DPE. They will be allowed to continue training with modification in place, Gist said, but they are not expected to be allowed to travel or host home competitions during the fall.
While the academy is at HPCON Bravo, the cadets will be required to stay on post at all times. They are allowed to visit the Commissary, the Exchange and their sponsor’s house, unless they are in quarantine, but they are not allowed to leave post. This includes the suspension of passes that allow cadets to go somewhere for an overnight visit. Those restrictions will be constantly monitored throughout the semester, Marsh said.
The big decision points will be Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and final decisions of cadets’ abilities to travel will be made by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams no less than three weeks before the breaks, according to the operating guidance for the semester.
“Those are hard decisions, but we all trust the Supe and know that he will make the best decision with the safety of the cadets, staff and faculty at the forefront,” Marsh said.
With the many changes in place, Marsh said they will need the support of the new cadet leadership including First Captain Class of 2021 Cadet Reilly McGinnis and Brigade Command Sergeant Major Class of 2021 Cadet Reuben Jones.
The cadet leaders will play a vital role in communicating the why of decisions to the Corps, Marsh said, and helping to protect the force throughout the semester.
“I asked Reilly, to have empathy up,” Marsh said. “I want all of the firsties to put yourselves in the shoes of the commandant and superintendent and say, ‘I don’t fully understand and I may not like what we are being asked to do, but I can understand why we’re doing it right now.’ Then Reilly, you have to help us tell the why.”
The plan that is currently in place will change along with the conditions. But as cadets returned to classes in person Monday for the first time since March when they left for spring break and didn’t return, Marsh said he was “proud.”