With a comprehensive and disciplined plan of risk assessment and management, Valley Forge Military Academy and College has been able to provide in-person instruction to all its cadets during the current school year without incurring any COVID-19 cases among cadets or staff.
Like all other schools, VFMAC switched to remote learning last March, as cadets spent the remainder of the academic year online rather than on campus. The challenges of learning away from the classroom were evident in the lack of social interaction, the absence of physical training, and a decline for some in terms of academic performance.
“We received feedback from parents that their sons didn’t do as well online,” said Colonel Stuart Helgeson, VFMAC President. “So, in June, we made the decision that we were going to bring everyone back.”
Since its founding in 1928, VFMAC has been a leadership institution focused on developing the whole person. The Academy is a college preparatory school for boys in grades 7-12. The College is a two-year institution for men and women and has been designated the Military College of Pennsylvania.
“We looked at the NBA and the NHL and the bubble concept they used and decided that was the best fit for us,” said Col. Helgeson. “We started communicating in July to the parents that there was going to be some very strict protocols for what we had to do in order to have in-person instruction.”
It was at a meeting late last year when Col. Helgeson and Dr. Paul Lea, Dean of the Academy, were first warned of the potential effects of a pandemic, which set in motion a call to action among the staff on campus. Using a template from the Department of Education on how to adapt in a COVID environment, the Academy and College created Health & Safety Plans to allow for a return of cadets for the 2020-21 school year.
According to Dr. Lea, the first step was to identify the logistics of safely bringing the cadets back to campus, how to test them, and how to isolate them until they were considered safe and virus-free.
“We had to get them to the point that they would become a ‘family unit,’ understanding that we were going to have these cadets for three months with no contact from the outside, other than faculty and staff,” he said. “It all came down to risk management more than anything else and just making sure everyone stayed safe, because at that stage, we just didn’t know enough.”
The plans were eventually shared with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (the accreditation body for Mid-Atlantic schools), which was impressed enough to share it with all its independent schools.
“Through the implementation of the plans, we’ve been able to keep the VFMAC cadets and staff COVID-free since July,” said Dr. Lea.
Also instrumental in the planning for a return to in-person instruction was Col. J.J. Rivera, Commandant of Cadets, who noted that the cadets were brought back to campus in five separate phases, then isolated in their own bubble or family unit in the barracks.
“As we closed the bubble, Rule No. 1 was that cadets were not allowed to leave campus, except for National Guard or Army Reserve training,” he said. “During a traditional school year, cadets earn the right to leave campus as a result of good conduct, but that had to be taken away to preserve our bubble.”
Once the campus was closed, cadets’ temperatures were taken twice a day, and faculty and staff had to go to a central location for temperature checks before they were allowed on campus. All visitors and vendors took an online questionnaire and also had temperature checks before entering campus. Everyone, including staff and cadets, had to be masked – indoors and out. Cadets have to wear masks until they return to their respective family units, and their masks follow the same design as the military – when they are not in use, they hang around the neck to become part of the uniform.
Col. Rivera and his team had to consider other issues as well, such as rotating physical training schedules, forming a competitive intramural sports program as a substitute for traditional fall sports, and deciding when and how the cadets would be fed. Indeed, cadets now arrive to the dining hall for each meal in two separate sittings, with social distancing around each table, rather than having the entire Corps of Cadets dine at one sitting as before.
“With everything we had in place, some parents were very thankful, and some thought we were overly cautious,” said Col. Rivera. “But, at the end of the day, we are going to err with caution.”
Of course, for the protocols to work, cadets themselves had to commit to the newly enacted restrictions they encountered once returning to campus, something Col. Helgeson credited above all else as contributing to the COVID-free school year.
“Their reaction was much better than any of us could have hoped for,” he said. “These cadets did not see their families, did not go home, did not get weekends off, but what they did have was the ability to be among each other and go to class every day. They were willing to do what was necessary to stay safe and continue with in-person instruction.”
Col. Helgeson was also impressed with his staff, who faced their own challenges in daily commuting and in concerns for their own health and safety in the classroom and on campus.
“Some of my peers at other schools have had challenges keeping teachers in the classroom, and I’m happy to say our teachers were committed to providing in-person instruction,” he said. “This enabled us to create some semblance of normalcy in an unprecedented time.”
Col. Rivera also offered a shout-out to the staff and faculty, noting that they made thedecision to not participate in large gatherings outside of campus, ensuring the environment on campus remained safe.
Other schools and colleges around the country continue to struggle with virus breakouts and super-spreading events on campus, causing students to abandon classrooms for remote learning. But due to the concerted effort of staff and cadets to prepare, develop, and execute a successful protocol, VFMAC remains without any verified cases of COVID-19.
“Here, the cadets are getting an education in-person and doing itwith their friends and peers – that’s the biggest benefit,” said Col. Helgeson. “Seeing them enjoying themselves on campus and hearing the laughter is music to our ears.”
Click here to learn more about Valley Forge Military Academy and College.