Military service academies plan for students’ return in fall

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The U.S. Naval Academy is planning to have its 4,400 midshipmen return to campus in Annapolis, Maryland, for the fall, after students completed the last semester with online learning from their homes around the nation due to the coronavirus, academy officials said Monday.

Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the superintendent, told the academy’s Board of Visitors he has been communicating with the leaders of the nation’s other service academies, and they also plan to have their students on campus in the fall.

“I can tell you, as of this morning, every single military service academy in this country is opening in the fall,” Buck told the board in an online meeting. “We all are developing very detailed plans with regards to health, safety and the protocols that we need to put in place to manage risk.”

Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, a spokesman for the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, said the academy will have a fall semester with cadets present, though the academy is still making plans. The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, did not immediately return an email and call seeking comment on its plans.

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While academics can be done online, Buck said the other two pillars of the academy’s mission statement are developing midshipmen morally and physically, and those goals require hands-on experiences on campus.

“We cannot develop leaders for our nation’s military services online,” Buck said.

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The superintendent told the board that even if an online distance learning must continue with faculty off of campus, the academy is planning to have its midshipmen in Annapolis.

“In the military, we are taught how to accept risk, manage the risk and lead through the risk, and that’s what I intend to do,” Buck said. “And I want to give you all the confidence that your Naval Academy team is very postured and thinking hard to minimize the risk of bringing those 4,400 midshipmen back in mid-August to start in-person development of leaders.”

Midshipmen toss their covers May 14, 2020, concluding the second swearing-in event for the United States Naval Academy Class of 2020 in Annapolis, Md. (Stacy Godfrey/Navy)

While midshipmen were away starting March 6 for nine days of spring break, Buck decided for them not to return due to the coronavirus. The students were instructed to return to their home of record and transition to online learning.

“I couldn’t have been more impressed with the faculty and the staff and the midshipmen themselves who took the orders and executed it very smartly, and we transitioned on the 20th of March to online learning,” Buck said.

Last month, the academy held its first-ever virtual graduation and commissioning ceremony. Defense Secretary Mark Esper congratulated the graduating midshipmen in remarks recorded earlier.

The academy’s Class of 2020 returned in groups from mid- to late-May to gather their belongings. The academy held five mini-commissioning events with about 210 graduating seniors every other day for 10 days, Buck said, and those events were stitched together in video and photographs for the virtual graduation ceremony last month.

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