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Unlike civilian colleges, the U.S. military academies have a mandate. They're expected to deliver about a thousand young officers to the armed forces every spring after graduation. And so while many American colleges are debating whether to reopen at all, these campuses are geared up for the fall with intensive precautions already in place. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: On a wide-open expanse right next to the dining hall here in Annapolis, young men and women in crisp white uniforms and white masks are doing what students here have been doing for 175 years - taking their first steps to becoming officers in the United States Navy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Left, your left, right. Left, left, left, right. Right on left.
CARRILLO: Right now I'm standing in an area about the size of three basketball courts. There are so many students. It's pretty jarring to see this many people in one place. These were the first-year students who have been heavily quarantined for two weeks. So even though it's blazing heat right now, they seem happy to be outside.
These exercises are a part of plebe summer, an intensive crash course to prepare first-year students for the transition to military life. They learn how to salute and march in time, as well as lots of new lingo. Floors are called decks. Toilets are called heads, and the students are midshipmen. But this year, plebe summer took on a whole new importance - a chance to quarantine these students in small groups.
ANDREW PHILLIPS: The attitude is, you know, we had - we do not have a choice. We must make this work.
CARRILLO: Andrew Phillips is the academic dean and provost of the United States Naval Academy. Classes officially began this week in an online format, but Phillips says they'll build their way back to in-person classes as quickly as possible.
PHILLIPS: We're not going to take a year to figure that out. We're going to take about a month.
CARRILLO: And it's not just Annapolis. At the Army's West Point campus in New York state and the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, educators and students are, for the most part, settling back into their daily routines. A group of scientists and mathematicians at the Air Force Academy helped make it happen. They're called the Pandemic Math Team.
ERIN ALMAND: So there are about 10 of us who have a background in either microbiology, molecular biology, virology - so all kind of people who like small things.
CARRILLO: Major Erin Almand is an assistant professor of biology at the Air Force Academy.
ALMAND: We're sitting around like, we could do this. Like, this is not a technically hard thing to do to actually try and screen people for this virus.
CARRILLO: Almand and her colleagues on the math team shared their findings and recommendations with the other service academies. Colonel Doug Wickert oversaw the process. He says the team's crowning achievement was the fizzle equation.
DOUG WICKERT: So the fizzle equation actually tells us how much testing, how much surveillance testing we have to do to make sure that any potential outbreak actually fizzles before it starts.
CARRILLO: For the Air Force, that means testing 15% of military staff and students weekly or about 750 tests a week. Wickert says the academies are in a better position than other universities.
WICKERT: We can do the testing in a matter of hours as opposed to having to send results off and wait for a couple of days.
CARRILLO: The Air Force Academy was the first service academy to have all of its students back on campus. And so far, officials have said there's no community spread. At West Point, about 60 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, cadets have been arriving in waves, everything planned with military precision.
CURTIS BUZZARD: You know, we had their arrival day and even their arrival times planned so that those cohorts would be built from the very beginning.
CARRILLO: Brigadier General Curtis Buzzard, West Point's commandant, says virtually every step was mapped out in those first two weeks.
BUZZARD: Certain companies use certain stairwells, certain hallways, certain bathrooms.
CARRILLO: West Point is, in many ways, made for quarantine. There's a grocery store, an elementary school and full neighborhoods for teachers and faculty inside its gates. Cadet Evan Walker says she feels safer here than she did back home in Houston.
EVAN WALKER: People were just acting like there was nothing wrong and refused to wear masks or didn't want to stay at home, which was kind of frustrating to me, honestly. And so being here, I appreciate it.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul, sir.
CARRILLO: Here in Annapolis, all students should be out of quarantine by next week. Since their campus is smaller and less isolated, the restrictions during quarantine were severe.
CORWIN STITES: Asking somebody to stay confined to a room for two weeks and not go to their friend's rooms or go around the campus and meet with people they haven't seen in months who are some of their closest friends is a very difficult thing to do.
CARRILLO: Midshipman Corwin Stites is a rising senior here. He's also in charge of training a group of incoming first-year students. I got to see him in action on one of the final days of plebe summer, right as the students finish their marching drill.
STITES: Why are you touching your face? You are at attention.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sir, I was making sure my cap was aligned properly, sir.
CARRILLO: Officials at the academies are hopeful that all that discipline, all that testing, all the restrictions will get them through the year safely. And they think other schools can learn from their example. But when I asked students whether they think it's possible at civilian campuses to replicate this success, they're not so sure.
CAMERON KINLEY: When we come in Day 1 in plebe summer, we're taught how to deal with the uncertainty.
CARRILLO: That's Midshipman Cameron Kinley. He's president of the class of 2021, and he's on the Navy football team. I met with him after practice at the academy's dining hall.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So here's Erin (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hey. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I already talked to her. So...
KINLEY: My little brother's in college, so I understand the procedures that they're taking. But they're nowhere near the precautions that we're going through at the Naval Academy.
CARRILLO: And even then, with all these rules in Annapolis, I saw some students sit three feet away from each other rather than six or out running without masks and stopping to chat with friends. Even with military precision, there are things you can't control.
Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.
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