The Naval Academy will begin to admit plebes Monday, a semblance of normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic.
But this year’s Plebe Summer will look different. From four days of induction instead of a singular I-Day to restriction of movement periods, the academy has adjusted the traditional Plebe Summer in order to make it safe for plebes, returning midshipmen and instructors.
Upon arrival, plebes and midshipmen returning for Plebe Summer will be tested for COVID-19 before entering a two-week restriction of movement period, said Cmdr. Kelly Laing, officer in charge for Plebe Summer.
The 1,185 plebes and 15 international students will be restricted to their rooms, which they will each share with another plebe.
The 14-day restriction of movement is essentially a quarantine period like other states have requested from those traveling to the state, especially from high-risk areas, said Capt. Dr. Adam Saperstein.
At the end of the 14 days, the plebes will be tested again, Saperstein said.
“What that will allow us to do is to ensure that there’s not going to be spread from person to person during that period of time,” he said. “With the exception, they will be in rooms of two, so that it will minimize that.”
If a plebe tests positive for COVID-19, they will be moved to an isolation space, Saperstein said. The academy’s medical personnel would then monitor the plebe.
If a plebe arrives with the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the Naval Academy will report it to the Navy-Marine Corps Public Health Center as well as Anne Arundel County, said Cmdr. Alana Garas, spokesperson for the Naval Academy. They will also alert the health officials in the plebe’s hometown.
In addition to providing medical services, the academy also has the ability to provide contact tracing if a plebe were to become ill while at the academy, Saperstein said.
The academy leadership reassesses each morning, looking at their needs, he said. In the case of an outbreak, the leadership would examine what medical personnel and space needs they have.
“I’ve been really impressed with how the academy leadership has dug into the literature and the understanding of this and has been really, really supportive to say, ‘Hey, let us know what we need to do to be able to take care of the midshipmen properly and we’ll make adjustments as needed to make sure that we’re taking care of their needs,'” Saperstein said.
Restriction of movement changes
Because plebes are restricted to their rooms, they will receive their computers early, Laing said. This is unusual for plebes as they usually receive laptops at the end of the summer.
It is a “different year,” Laing said, and providing the laptops will allow the midshipmen to get lessons from their rooms. This means the classes will be frontloaded with mental and moral lessons.
But even with computers, plebes will still be required to follow strict technology limitations. The Naval Academy’s information technology department will be able to monitor what plebes do and when they use the computer. Filters will also be applied, Laing said.
The Naval Academy is aware that restriction of movement might be additional stress on plebes, said Cmdr. Randy Reese, director of the Midshipmen Development Center.
But even with the additional stressor, on top of an intense Plebe Summer, Reese does not expect a surge in midshipmen seeking psychological services.
For those who need help coping, the academy offers psychological services. Plebes will first consult with assigned chaplains, and if more help is needed, they can go to a psychologist, Reese said.
The academy’s mission is to teach midshipmen to be leaders, and the restriction of movement offers lessons, Reese said. One of the big words tossed around is the idea of resilience. He tells civilian coworkers that this period relates to times where he had his liberty curtailed as an active duty service member.
“And sure, it’s not fun, and it adds a little bit of stress,” he said. “But the expectation is that you rise to the challenge in order to meet the operational on-mission demands. And so this is just one more opportunity for them to start learning and applying skills of resilience.”
There are some midshipmen who have already gone through the restriction of movement period, including those who will be detailers for Plebe Summer. The Midshipmen Development Center hears some concerns and suggestions from those who already went through it and responded, Reese said.
Like snacks. One of the first complaints was about food, and the Midshipmen Development Center posted on Instagram a series of snack suggestions that midshipmen could eat during the restriction of movement period.
The center, like others at the academy, have used Instagram and other social media to communicate with midshipmen while everyone has been away, Reese said.
After the ROM
Once the plebes finish the restriction of movement period, they will be placed into 30 companies of 40 with nine detailers per company, Laing said.
“That pod of 49 will work together, train together, live together, eat together, they will do everything together,” Laing said. “That’s a big difference in years past, because in years past, it was the entire fourth class regiment that was actually doing everything together. intermixing, intramurals, all of that. This year, we’re keeping each one of these 30 companies of 40 plebes, very insular.”
Keeping plebes in companies of 40 is similar to the other academies, Laing said, which will have incoming students in companies of 30-40. This is based off of modeling looking at the spread of the coronavirus.
The companies will attend in-person classes as well as physical training. There will be strong procedures in place, he said.
Unlike most years, plebes will not be allowed to practice with sports teams until after Plebe Summer.
Face masks will be required, and the academy will supply a rotating stock of masks that are washable for plebes to wear, he said. The only time plebes will not wear masks is during physical training, but then the closest plebe will be to each other is at least 17.5 feet.
There will be no physical contact between the staff and plebes during instruction, except for in the case of safety, he said.
The academy will still run the weapon range, with strict sanitation practices. Plebes will be getting their own personal safety gear, like safety glasses.
The academy will also not hold Plebe Summer parades this year, Laing said.
Lessons from changes
Just as midshipmen can learn resilience from the restriction of movement period, Laing said plebes will have the opportunity to bond with the other members of their company, possibly more than other plebe classes.
Change is also a lesson for the plebes and detailers, as a career in the Navy means being in dynamic environments, he said.
“And as leaders in the future, we have to very quickly be able to forecast out to see what’s on the horizon, anticipate what’s going to be changing, and a change before that happens, so that we can be ahead of the enemy. And so we can be ahead of those changing circumstances,” Laing said.
For the academy, this also means embracing social media, as the Midshipmen Development Center has done. The commandant of midshipmen has also turned to Instagram stories to keep the mids informed.
Lessons also change, with training blocks on implicit bias being added in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. These lessons are in addition to the diversity training program already in place.
The Naval Academy aims for team unity, and plebes come from all over the country and globe, Laing said. Once they are all together, the academy pushes them to have frank discussions that help them realize how they grew up differs from others.
“I think one of the key […] pieces to that is understanding that we’re gonna teach them what this comes down to is dropping any wall[s], dropping any personal biases, learning to really challenge the way that you thought growing up, necessarily whichever background you come from, and realizing that only by removing the fears because of what you see may be different, that you can then remove any personal biases, bigotry, hatred, or past problems or mistakes that other generations have made,” he said.
Plebe Summer is not just for the incoming class. While Laing looks forward to the growth of the plebes over the next weeks, his favorite part comes from watching the detailers.
There are 608 detailers selected from the academy classes, a position that is sought after by midshipmen, he said.
He enjoys watching those selected to be detailers become leaders.
Laing said he has heard that some alumni are saying this Plebe Summer is not real because of the changes. He pushes back against that sentiment.
“In fact, I would say that their challenges are much more significant,” Laing said. “They’re going through a plebe summer and one of the toughest and most challenging years that this country’s had in recent years. And I think because of that there’s an incredible opportunity for growth.”
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