West Point Class of 2024 arrives amid coronavirus concerns
By PETER D. KRAMER | Observer-Dispatch | Published: July 14, 2020
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WEST POINT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Four of the cadet candidates who arrived on campus at the United States Military Academy on Sunday to begin cadet basic training tested positive for COVID-19 and will spend their first weeks either in isolation or quarantine on campus.
Lt. Col. Robert Kinney confirmed Monday that the four cadet candidates, who were screened as part of their reception day on Sunday, will be isolated for 10 days or quarantined for 14 days on campus while their classmates begin their West Point careers with four weeks of cadet basic training.
Asked Monday if there were more cases, the public affairs office declined to state a number. Answering for the office, spokeswoman Cheryl Boujnida wrote: "Less than 1% of the cadets have tested positive. Those who tested positive were immediately moved into isolation and will participate in Cadet Basic Training tasks virtually until they can rejoin the group."
Boujnida said the rapid test is administered by a nose swab and processed by a diagnostic device on campus. While awaiting results, which take two to three hours, the new cadets are socially distanced and required to wear a mask.
Accommodations to COVID-19
The academy this week welcomes the class of 2024 in a fashion similar to the way it bid farewell to the class of 2020 a few weeks ago, with caution and many concessions to the coronavirus outbreak.
The 1,200-member class has been brought to campus in three separate reception days, called "R Day." Cadets began arriving Sunday and the entire class will be registered by Tuesday, to begin military training on Wednesday.
Immediately after being dropped off, at the West Point Prep School, the new cadets have their temperature checked and, soon thereafter, a COVID-19 test.
When they are bused to the center of campus, they encounter a hand-washing station with soap and water.
Masks are worn at all times, except when the new cadets are instructed to hydrate from Camelbaks, camouflaged water-filled bladders worn around their necks.
Masks were even worn when cadets visited the West Point barber for the traditional scalp-revealing close cut.
Six-foot spacing is rigidly enforced, under penalty of getting yelled at by a cadet lieutenant from behind a mask.
The "R Day" salute of "the cadet in the red sash" — a time-honored tradition where the new cadet has to perfect his or her salute — has been altered by placing a clear plastic screen between the cadet and the cadet candidate.
After their four weeks of military training — cut down from the traditional six by the reality of the virus — the new cadets will march nine miles back to campus from training for "A Day," or acceptance day on Aug. 15.
Kinney said the COVID-positive cadet candidates who lose training time to isolation or quarantine can make up any shortfalls during fall field training.
"We fully intend to have the entire class of 2024 consolidated for accepted students day," Kinney said.
Kinney, addressing the issue of cadet candidates who tested positive, said: "Every single one of those candidates will be receiving medical evaluation and we have a specific cadre, Quebec platoon, responsible for their treatment and eventually their transition back to training, fully staffed medical professionals."
The standard for isolation is 10 days, for quarantine, it's 14 days, he said.
"Based on daily health assessments by medical providers, we may extend that to ensure that anyone we return into their normal summer cohort is not only individually ready to train, but not at risk for potentially exposing others," Kinney said.
West Point's experience, on a campus where adherence to rules is unquestioned, could offer the best-case scenario as colleges and universities make plans for the fall. West Point also has something other campuses don't: an infrastructure for COVID-19 testing, tracing, monitoring, and treatment.
Boujnida, in the public affairs office, said classes will resume with the entire student body on campus on Aug. 17 "with extended class periods, staggered classes to minimize the number of cadets in the hallways at one time and facial coverings required in academic settings."
A different 'R Day'
Monday's reception was unlike any in the 218-year history of West Point.
For one thing, it was muffled by all the masks.
When the new cadets were instructed, at close range and at high decibels, to wash their hands well at the hand-washing station, they were shouted at by cadet lieutenants, including Braylon Williams of Eunice, Louisiana.
To ensure they had washed long enough, Williams and his fellow instructors told new cadets to read the Cadet Creed, at high volume, as they lathered.
"Given everything that's going on, we want to make sure that the new cadets are practicing good hygiene," Williams said later, at a decibel level that was more library than LaGuardia Airport.
This year, families weren't permitted to watch R Day. The license plates at the Visitors Center — Alabama, Minnesota, Kentucky and California, among them — showed people had logged the miles, nonetheless.
When their appointed time approached, they drove to the West Point Prep School and watched their cadet candidates walk across a field into their West Point careers.
Some did it more easily than others.
Gayle Suess of Batavia, Illinois, was there to drop off her son, Justin, the eldest of her six children. She dropped him off with a hug and many cellphone photos taken, then watched him present himself at checkpoint 1 for his temperature check.
As Justin walked briskly across the field, his mother (and her dad, Bob Fennell, there for support) drove toward the exit, but Gayle decided to park their SUV and get a few more photos.
"I've been grieving the last couple of weeks," Gayle said. "It's a blessing that they've been home so much, because of COVID, e-learning. Normally, with all his extracurricular activities, I wouldn't see as much of him. In a way it'll be harder. He plays the piano and I'll miss hearing him play the piano."
Minutes later, Kathy Pack held onto her son, Walter Pack Jr., for dear life, prompting the new cadet from Philadelphia to exclaim: "I'm not going to war. I'm just going to basic, mom!"
Pack knows about basic training, having been through it at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri last year before learning he'd been accepted to West Point.
Also arriving Monday was a standout volleyball player from Valhalla, Jasmine Grant, who reported at 5:30 a.m.
The youngest of Stephen Grant's five children, Jasmine said last weekend that her father struggled with whether she should attend or not.
"Our faith played a large role in my entire recruitment process and, honestly, in my whole life and my family's life," Grant said. "In his uncertainty, my dad prayed and was able to find closure that this would be the right decision for me."
She is aware of the Long Gray Line, the tradition at West Point.
"One of the major things that brought me to West Point was knowing about their alumni and the leaders that they have cultivated," she said.
Grant will join the Army volleyball team, which will shorten her military summer training further, as she heads into captain-led practices and the preseason.
"They teach you from the start that you're there to listen and learn and that's the attitude I plan to adopt — taking in as much as I can — rather than trying to be the biggest fish in this new pond."
Kramer writes for the Rockland/Westchester Journal News, where this article originally appeared.