Feature   Defense News

A New Normal: Service Academies Cope With COVID-19

April 23, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

People all over the world are dealing with life changes that have occurred due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that includes students at the nation's storied military academies.

Thousands of students attend the five U.S. service academies — the Military Academy in West Point, New York; the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. 

Discipline and routine are essential for those students, but both were upended in mid-March when COVID-19 began to spread across the country. 

U.S. Air Force Academy cadets wearing masks sit in a row on a field.
Graduation Attendees
U.S. Air Force Academy cadets wearing face masks listen to opening remarks during the academy's Class of 2020 graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 18, 2020.
Photo By: Trang Le, Air Force
VIRIN: 200418-F-FZ674-1013Y

Most students were on spring break when social distancing rules went into place, so academy leaders extended those breaks until they were able to get distance learning up and running. The Air Force Academy, which was the only school not on spring break at the time, sent its underclassmen home. 

There are always some students for whom going home isn't an option, and accommodations have been made for their continued learning. Each school has a yearly sponsorship program in which local families help take care of the students who can't get home to their relatives. Those families have stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well. 

"A lot of those sponsor families have still been kind enough to host some of those students," Coast Guard Academy spokesman Cmdr. Dave Milne said.

By late March, students at all five academies were set up with resources to finish their coursework online. Students have adjusted relatively well, officials said, despite having to adapt to challenges such as time zones, missing equipment and the occasional spotty internet connection.

"I live on a rural farm in Ohio, and we have satellite internet," said West Point Cadet Edmund Coleman, who will graduate this year. "As a result, sometimes if the weather's bad, I don't have great access to the online meetings. Most of my teachers have anticipated that and they've recorded lessons and put them online so that I can view them when I do [get the] internet back. As of now, it hasn't really been an issue."

Four boxes on a screen show the faces of four people. A smaller box in the bottom right shows a fifth person.
Virtual Learning
Amy Richmond, professor of geography, holds class via video conferencing software, April 1, 2020. West Point began remote learning March 19 due to COVID-19. Classes will continue to be taught online through term-end exams.
Photo By: Amy Richmond, Army
VIRIN: 200401-A-A3342-1103C

The challenges are forcing many to get creative. One West Point teacher set up a show-and-tell portion of his class to get the students to interact more. 

But there have still been some frustrations, especially for graduating seniors who have questions that, so far, remain open-ended.  

"They [seniors] had some capstone projects in the works and a lot of questions, preparing for their next assignments and permanent change of station moves," Milne said. "But they understand and … they've been really open and grateful and flexible."

All service academy students have been encouraged to keep up their physical training as well, whether on their own or through school resources. Each academy has created online workouts and exercise sessions for students to access.  

Many spring and summer activities at the schools have been canceled, including sporting events. Even some commissioning ceremonies are still in question.

Cadets in dress uniform and cap, sit in lawn chairs spaced 6 feet in each direction.
Graduating Cadets
Air Force Academy cadets sit on the terrazzo in social-distancing during the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 18, 2020. More than 960 cadets crossed the stage to become the Air and Space Forces’ newest second lieutenants.
Photo By: Trang Le, Air Force
VIRIN: 200418-F-FZ674-1015
A female cadet claps and screams in joy.
Graduation Celebration
An Air Force Academy cadet cheers during the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 18, 2020.
Photo By: Trang Le, Air Force
VIRIN: 200418-F-FZ674-1017

The Air Force Academy graduated its cadets early, on April 18. The ceremony, which was moved up by more than a month, allowed the Class of 2020 to celebrate together, albeit without any of the annual precommissioning festivities. The graduates — including the first batch of Space Force officers — stood 6 feet apart to maintain social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Family and friends were not allowed to attend, but they were able to watch online. 

West Point announced in late April that its graduation, which was initially scheduled for May 23, would be pushed to June 13, when President Donald J. Trump will serve as the commencement speaker. The school said graduating cadets are expected to return to campus in time for the ceremony, which will involve unspecified changes from previous ceremonies due to current circumstances.

"The size and scope of the graduation ceremony will be determined by safety considerations for cadets and the entire West Point community," the school's Public Affairs Office said in a statement. "Academy leadership is conducting a thorough analysis and plan for the safe return of the Corps of Cadets."

A black-and-white photo of a uniformed midshipman holding a folder with an emblem on it.
Graduation Ceremony
A 2019 Naval Academy graduate holds her diploma during the commissioning ceremony in Annapolis, Md., May 24, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith, DOD
VIRIN: 190524-D-SV709-0873
A father and his twin sons, wearing dress white uniforms, smile for a selfie.
Graduation Selfie
Navy Adm. John Gumbleton takes a selfie with his twin sons, Coast Guard Ensigns John and Joshua Gumbleton, during the 138th Coast Guard commencement exercise in New London, Conn., May 17, 2019.
Photo By: Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Thieme
VIRIN: 190523-G-KU031-1023C

The Naval Academy also canceled its commissioning week traditions, including the popular Herndon Monument climb. Students and their families were told in mid-April that graduation would remain on its original date of May 22, but it will now be virtual. Vice Adm. Sean S. Buck, the Naval Academy superintendent, is encouraging graduates to have private swearing-in ceremonies that they can share with the school.

The Coast Guard Academy announced last week it will hold a virtual graduation on May 20, its original date. Milne said they're still working out the details, including soliciting ideas from first-class cadets.

Officials at the Merchant Marine Academy, which commissions many of its graduates into the armed forces, said they are still considering their options. The academy runs on trimesters, so its graduation ceremonies are usually held in late June.

Despite all the upheaval the pandemic has caused, the schools and their students are doing what many of them train to do — stay prepared and be flexible.