VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia -- Class 54 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy is scheduled to graduate March 20, 2021, and for the staff and cadets of the program, it will be the culmination of a five-month class that was both virtual and in-person and required coordination with and support of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education.
“The second cadets came on campus the world almost seemed right again,” Mark Chicoine, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “There was a bounce in everyone’s step. Because we could come and work with the kids in person there was a sense of normalcy.”
Although Class 53 also took place during COVID-19, it was an all-virtual class. That provided ChalleNGe with an opportunity to learn a lot about how to operate in the new environment.
“We learned how to work in the virtual, hold cadets accountable and hold ourselves accountable,” he said. “So in the summertime we built the reopening plan to actually bring them on campus.”
Rebecca Moses, the state safety and compliance specialist for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, played a huge part in developing the reopening plan, serving as a facilitator between ChalleNGe and numerous state agencies.
“We were able to lay the framework, utilizing the most up-to-date guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Virginia Department of Education and the guidance set forth in the Emergency Temporary Standard set in place by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry,” Moses explained. “Our main goal was to create a useable product, that would keep both staff and cadets safe while on grounds and during the class. To date, that plan has been extremely successful.”
Because of the size of the facility and the barracks, ChalleNGe was limited to bringing only 69 kids onto campus. However they had been recruiting for a full size class- about 150 cadets. After discussing all their options, ChalleNGe leadership decided to break the class into two groups.
“We decided to split that group up and bring in 69 primarily credit recovery kids in the fall and start the GED kids in the virtual,” Chicoine said. “Then we would switch them out halfway through the class and graduate both groups as a class in March.”
According to NGB, cadets need to have 75 days physically on campus in order to graduate. Splitting the group into two would meet that threshold.
When he approached Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and Walt Mercer, the DMA Chief Operations Officer, with their plan, they approved the idea.
“Everyone was extremely supportive,” Chicoine said.
Prior to the class, staff members were trained to conduct wellness screenings, provided with several COVID-19-related trainings, fitted for respirators in the event of a symptomatic cadet that had to be in isolation, and the entire campus was retrofitted to be able to successfully house the cadets, according to Moses.
ChalleNGe worked with the local Virginia Beach Department of Health, who came in and tested the staff a week prior to the candidates arriving on campus. All of the tests of staff members were negative. Then on their first day on campus the cadets were all tested as well. They were then “bubbled up” by platoon and those platoons never interacted and staff never interacted with each other’s platoons.
“We then ran a platoon-centric acclimation period,” Chicoine explained. “We were fortunate that all the results were negative. We tested again at 14 days, tested cadets and staff and they all came up negative again.”
Moses then requested and received rapid tests. ChalleNGe then started testing every two weeks up through Christmas. Although they had a couple of staff positives, they were personnel who never interacted with cadets.
Following the holidays 24 cadets who had been virtual for the first half of the course then came onto campus. In addition, another 23-24 who had been in person before returned to campus.
In early January Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen came to campus to test the staff and cadets.
Since there were a few positive tests, everyone was closely monitored, quarantined by bubble by platoon and given rapid tests. They had no more positives.
“We test currently on a 14-day rotation, but also test at a higher frequency if there are any symptomatic staff or cadets,” Moses said. “Staff and cadets participate in daily wellness screenings so that if anyone is symptomatic, we can catch it at the start of the day or shift.”
“Every day is a new challenge,” Chicoine said. “But the testing protocol has been successful and our precautions have all been followed and been successful.”
Chicoine explained that in addition to wearing masks whenever they are on campus, cadets and staff members are required to socially distance and their temperature is taken three times a day.
“The only time you may see a mask come down is if you’re socially distanced and doing physical fitness,” he explained.
Classrooms get sanitized after each class and the cadets don’t eat together in the dining hall. The staff prepares meals and packages them in containers for the cadets to eat in the barracks.
ChalleNGe also provided a way for the cadets to keep their distance in the barracks and maintain some privacy while also being monitored by cadre. See-through partitions were built between bunks and wall lockers so two cadets have an area all to themselves.
“They are taking ownership of their areas,” he said. “They have their own area of responsibility and it’s something we will keep after COVID. Behavior is way down. They’re impeccable. I do barracks inspection and they’re the best I’ve ever seen. It’s been a tremendous change.”
Each platoon also has their own designated area as a platoon gathering place. While the 2nd platoon uses the dining hall, the 3rd platoon and 1st platoon use classrooms.
“No one else goes in these rooms except the platoons,” Chicoine said. “This way they each have their own dedicated space to meet as groups.”
Chicoine said staff has also noticed very little cases of the flu with this class.
“Normally we have sniffles and the flu,” he said. “But the COVID protocols like social distancing and hand washing is helping with those too.”
After five months, ChalleNGe leadership is pleased to see their plan has been effective and Chicoine gives a lot of credit to Moses.
“She is the unsung hero of all this,” he said. “We’re on a regular schedule with her. She has worked with the state and helped us navigate all the federal and state guidance and helped us put together that plan to present to the Department of Education.
“Rebecca is shining star in all this and we’ve received so much support up and down the chain of command. She has been right there with us every step of the way. Any question we immediately contact her and she’s been phenomenal.”
Moses has also worked closely with the Virginia Department of Health to get all staff who want a COVID-19 vaccine vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“The staff at Commonwealth Challenge have done a phenomenal job of adapting and overcoming during this pandemic,” Moses said. “It’s truly been a team effort.”
While no decision has been made yet on how a graduation ceremony will unfold for Class 54, Chicoine said he’d like to find a way to recognize the cadets of Class 53, as well.
“They’re not considered graduated according to NGB because they didn’t spend at least 75 days on campus but we always consider them alumni and I really want to recognize them,” he said.
When he looks at the cadets of Class 54, Chicoine said he sees a phenomenal group.
“You ask why are they so good. I think it’s because the staff has performed brilliant,” he explained. “I think by them being here, having a routine, having peers, there was almost a sense of returning to normal. They didn’t want to go back to the virtual, they wanted to be here. That’s the thing that’s the neatest- the staff is doing well and the kids are focused.”