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Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on ROTC Programs

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs at higher ed institutions across the country in unique ways. Some ROTC cadets training to be officers in the U.S. armed forces have had to train while donning masks, and other cadets have had to move intense, high-contact training to Zoom in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the U.S., got creative.

About five months prior to the fall semester, Col. Matt Smith, dean of the College of National Services and professor of aerospace studies at Norwich, was asking, “What are those objectives that we must do?”

His answer: continue training to stay on track with student academic success and programming, with safety as a priority.

One of the ways to do that amid the health emergency over the summer, explained Smith, was to conduct training locally in Vermont.

“COVID-19 rates in Vermont are actually some of the lowest in the country,” said Smith. “So instead of exposing cadets with unnecessary risks by sending them to Georgia and other places, we were able to train them in the local area, which saves time, money and resources.”

Restructuring formalized officer training for cadets in summer programs gave ROTC leadership an inside look at how such a restructure would work for the entire student body in the fall. Being indoors with roughly over 700 cadets total would not be safe given COVID-19.

“We’re also competing for indoor resources, especially in a place like Northfield, where weather is not optimal,” said Smith. Thus, physical training was moved outdoors.

Adjustment is an understatement when you “factor in the rain, factor in the altitude, especially when it’s winter in Vermont for five months out the year,” added Smith, who also faces deciding what uniform cadets will wear due to the weather.

At the same time, “we just kind of got in everybody’s head that due to the timeframe, we’d be training outside. Once everyone got that mentally, it just kind of became a normal [routine] and we just made it work,” said Smith.

To date, no cadets have tested positive for COVID-19 at Norwich, he added.

The University of Northern Iowa Army ROTC program also had conducted summer training regionally, which was originally supposed to be done in Kentucky, to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Today, the U.S. has over 11.4 million coronavirus cases and nearly a quarter of a million deaths, which keep climbing.

In an effort to continue combating the virus, some higher ed institutions have completed training and courses virtually. At The Citadel, instruction was delivered via a mixture of in-person and hybrid methods, explained Kim Keelor-Parker, senior director of communications in The Citadel’s office of communications and marketing, over email.

Once a week, four cadets are randomly selected for COVID-19 testing. Cadets will also leave for Thanksgiving break on Nov. 24 and come back on a staggered schedule between Jan.13-15 to help mitigate exposure risks, explained Keelor-Parker.

“I continued to be impressed by our Army ROTC Cadets at The Citadel whose performance this semester, in spite of the challenges they and all students face, has been exemplary,” said Col. John Cyrulik, professor of military science at The Citadel, in a statement. “These Army ROTC Cadets are mentally and physically tough, disciplined, and highly motivated. We have trained hard all semester to ensure we remain on-track to commission next year the largest cohort of Army officers from The Citadel since the Vietnam war.”

Similar to The Citadel, the University of Northern Iowa’s Army ROTC program has been compressed this semester to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Cadets began a week early and will complete their courses before Thanksgiving, explained Jonathan Thompson, Northern Iowa’s Army ROTC program’s recruiting operations officer.

With a tight schedule and COVID-19 measures in place, added Thompson, “each class becomes more important.” There have been “good leadership challenges and leadership lessons that our cadets have learned through this whole thing,” he added, including learning to work in virtual environments.

Capt. Jason Murphy, executive officer of the Naval ROTC (NROTC) program at The Virginia Military Institute (VMI), explained in an e-mail to Diverse that some of the challenges experienced amid the pandemic at VMI have included transitioning to teleworking, optimizing online instruction training/teaching, ensuring the health of all personnel and students throughout COVID-19, and learning new and creative ways to communicate accurate information.

The difference is that “our midshipmen are also members of the Corps of Cadets at VMI and Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL). They are tougher than most,” added Murphy. “Their training teaches them to be resilient. They learn to be flexible and adapt to changing environments.”

Smith couldn’t agree more: “If we help cadets problem-solve now and we don’t just get frustrated and assume that they should know what they’re going to do, we can use COVID-19 as an opportunity to educate them.”

If his students could figure out training and procedures amid COVID-19, then, when they’re active-duty officers, they’ll be able to figure out anything, he said. They’ll have the experience of “COVID-19 to fall back on,” he added.

For example, “COVID-19 has forced people to look at other ways to get things done,” Thompson said. “As leaders in the Army, we expect cadets to be adaptive and be able to change based on the situation they encounter. It has forced full-time Army instructors to be adaptive and taught our cadets to be adaptive as well.”

Thompson also noted that “being able to collaborate virtually has made a difference as well …. Being able to talk over Zoom or Microsoft Teams or whatever platform is something that will continue to be used. So being able to work through it now has benefited cadets’ and instructors’ ability to communicate and plan.”

At VMI, the Naval ROTC unit has hosted video calls to check in on students in isolation, explained Murphy. Limited peer interactions and visits by members of the Naval ROTC unit have also helped boost morale. Everyone treats each other like family, added Murphy.

At Norwich University, a recent movie night, intramural sports and the opportunity to utilize physical spaces have helped cadets feel supported and engaged too. Together, it “has created an environment of being normal,” said Smith.

“The thing about ROTC is we focus on teamwork, comradery and working together,” added Thompson. “So even in those times of quarantine, cadets are checking in with each other.”

All VMI cadets have access to professional counseling services located at the VMI Post Hospital for further support, as do all military universities. Active-duty service members are able to contact their local primary care providers and receive referrals for mental health services, as required, among other services, added Murphy.

“We remind our VMI/VWIL cadets and midshipmen that we are always available to talk to them and help them through this challenging time,” said Murphy. “They are not alone. In the end, we are going to make it through this together. And we’re going to do so in a way that everyone can be proud of.”

Murphy’s other recommendations for students included staying connected to family and friends as well as being engaged with oneself via games, reading, and working out.

As for instructors, he recommended they “demonstrate servant-leadership, which is when every student and midshipman believes that their NROTC instructors and leaders in the unit care about them, their well-being and their future. Do your very best to get to know your students and midshipmen on a personal and professional level. Know their personal story and what their goals are for the future.”

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