At military academies, COVID-19 is the enemy to be defeated

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A social distancing sign is seen on the floor as a midshipman walks to class at Luce Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. Under the siege of the coronavirus pandemic, classes have begun at the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But unlike at many colleges around the country, most students are on campus and many will attend classes in person. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – As eight Navy midshipmen file into their economics class, instructor Kurtis Swope points to the antibacterial wipes on the desk. “Did you grab wipes?” he asks, then tells each one to take two, wipe down the desk when they arrive and again when they leave. “That should be your process.”

As chairman of U.S. Naval Academy's economics department, Swope broke his class into two sections, so every student could attend in person. Down the hall another instructor, flanked by chemistry equipment, stands in front of two computers teaching in an empty classroom. And another instructor sits in her office, talking to a grid of camo-clad students on her laptop.

Under the siege of the coronavirus pandemic, classes have begun at the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But unlike at many colleges around the country, most students are on campus and many will attend classes in person.

This is largely due to advantages the military schools have. They're small, each with about 4,500 students who know that joining the military means they're subject to more control and expected to follow orders. Their military leaders, meanwhile, are treating the virus like an enemy that must be detected, deterred and defeated. They view the students as the next generation of commanders who must learn to lead troops through any crisis, including this one.

“If you look at COVID as a threat, it helps you frame it in a way that I think you can then conduct action against it,” said Brig. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, West Point's commandant. The cadets, he said, are getting lessons in “leading through uncertainty and adversity. I’ve had to do that throughout my career in the Army, particularly in combat, and they’re getting a little dose of it."

The virus outbreak sent most academy students home to finish spring semester online. Air Force seniors stayed and graduated early.

Now students have returned, and 1% to 2% tested COVID-19 positive on arrival and went into isolation. Since then, officials say they've seen few new cases. The Navy and Air Force will randomly test 15% of students weekly; West Point will test 15% to 20% monthly.

Because they need dozens of on-campus rooms to potentially isolate COVID students or quarantine those who come in contact with infected persons, the Navy and Air Force academies are renting space off-site for healthy students. The Navy, in Annapolis, Maryland, is putting 375 students at St. John’s College and the Air Force, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will put 400 in three local hotels.