The Air Force Academy will have all 4,000 cadets on campus by the end of the month under a plan that includes housing about 400 “healthy” cadets in off-campus hotel rooms as the school seeks extra space in its dormitories to quarantine coronavirus cases.
The school, which sent 75% of its cadets home in March in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, is coming back to full strength under an Air Force policy that ruled it and other sources of new troops essential. The freshman class is already on campus in basic training under a regimen that includes frequent coronavirus testing and strict social distancing rules.
“In the next week the remaining cadets will be returning to the academy,” the school said. “The safety of cadets, staff and the entire (academy) community, as well as the Colorado Springs community, remains our number one priority.”
Getting the freshmen on campus caused some early headaches at the academy after an undisclosed number of the new cadets tested positive for the virus. The academy said it quarantined the cadets under medical care until they were found to be free of the virus.
While debate rages in Colorado Springs about the reopening of public schools this fall, the military in the region has worked to keep up training and meet mission requirements amid the pandemic. At Fort Carson, a full brigade of troops is preparing to roll out this week for a training exercise under quarantine conditions.
At the academy, traditionally one of the Pikes Peak region’s biggest summertime tourists attractions, gates have been closed to the public even as the school makes cautious steps toward reopening.
“In-person classes may use creative solutions possibly involving outdoor classes, using larger classrooms for smaller classes, and accomplishing labs and other hands-on coursework in small groups to accommodate the proper social distancing space,” the school said.
The academy worked with the Defense Department, state and local health officials to come up with its plan to bring back its full roster of cadets. The school plans to give each cadet several tests for the virus during their first two weeks back in Colorado Springs.
The school also worked to house and care for cadets infected with the virus.
The addition of hundreds of hotel rooms, where coronavirus-free cadets will stay, freed up space in dormitories to quarantine their infected classmates.
“The Air Force Academy will house approximately 400 cadets in hotels off base for the fall semester, and possibly longer as the pandemic situation evolves,” the school said. “The academy is pleased to partner with the Colorado Springs business community in finding a solution to housing cadets to maintain a safe and healthy training and academic environment.”
Exact details on the new housing plan haven’t been released.
“The select group of healthy cadets living off-base will be subject to the same stringent military training and academic standards, and safety protocols as the cadets remaining on base. Academy supervision will be at the hotels as well,” the school said. “Transportation and food options are still being considered.”
The U.S. Military Academy in New York and the Naval Academy in Maryland have not announced plans for plebes and midshipmen for the fall semester, but each school has brought in freshmen for basic training.
How the fall semester will play out at Air Force remains to be seen. Staple events at the school, from dances to football games, are in limbo as leaders wait for the pandemic to subside.