In Annapolis, Md., 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 U.S. Navy.
These exercises are a part of the traditional "plebe summer," an intensive crash course that prepares first-year students for the transition to military life. They learn how to salute and march as a unit, along with lots of new lingo: floors are called "decks," toilets are "heads," and the students are "midshipmen."
Unlike civilian colleges, the U.S. military academies have a mandate — they owe about 1,000 young officers to the armed forces every spring. When the academies were forced to send students home in March, they immediately began planning to bring students back.
"The attitude is 'We do not have a choice. We must make this work,' " explained Andrew Phillips, academic dean of the United States Naval Academy.
Classes officially begin next week in an online format. Phillips says they'll build their way back to in-person classes as quickly as possible.
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 in to 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.
"We were sitting around one day in March like 'we can do this,' " says Maj. Erin Almand, an assistant professor of biology at the academy. "It's not a technically hard thing to screen people for this virus."
So Almand and her colleagues on the team shared their findings and recommendations with the other service academies. Their crowning achievement? The "fizzle equation."
The "fizzle equation" says that in a closed population — like the service academies — you have to do a certain amount of weekly testing to catch an outbreak in time for it to "fizzle out." For the Air Force Academy, its calculations determined that means testing 15% of military staff and students weekly — or about 750 tests a week.
"Our situation is admittedly easier than a lot of universities because we can do the testing in a matter of hours, rather than having to send results off and wait for a couple of days," says Col. Doug Wickert, a professor of aeronautics who also heads the Pandemic Math Team.
The school can have test results back so quickly because they're running them in-house. Air Force Academy professors volunteer their time each week to run the tests. The other academies are processing tests at nearby military hospitals with similar turnaround times.
(The other two U.S. service academies, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the Merchant Marine Academy in Nassau County, N.Y., have much smaller enrollments but are also conducting surveillance testing on military staff and students.)
The Air Force Academy is using a method called pool testing to decrease the number of actual tests that must be run each week. Even though the academy will swab 750 people, it will run only about 90 tests. Each test will be a group of eight swabs. If one comes back positive then the academy will retest all the swabs individually.
And that's just the weekly surveillance testing. Students have been returning to the Colorado Springs campus all summer in waves. Each wave, or cohort, underwent a two-week quarantine period in their dorm rooms. Over the course of quarantine they were tested on days 0, 7, 10 and 14.
The Air Force Academy was the first service academy to have all of its students back, and so far, officials say there has been no community spread.
At West Point, located 60 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, cadets have also been arriving all summer. Their arrivals were choreographed from the moment they stepped back on campus:
"We had arrival times planned, so when they showed up to get dropped off they were entering their quarantine group," explained West Point's Commandant, Brig. Gen. Curtis A. Buzzard. Virtually every step was mapped out in those first two weeks: "Groups had assigned stairwells, hallways and bathrooms."
On top of the precision and military discipline, 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 that with all the restrictions, she feels much safer back on campus than she did while she was home in Houston. "When I was at home, people were just acting like there was nothing wrong," she said. "People refused to wear masks or stay at home, which was kind of frustrating to me, honestly. So being here — I appreciate it."
In Annapolis, the returning midshipmen are still trickling in — all students should be out of quarantine by next week. Since the campus is smaller and more centrally located than West Point's, the restrictions during quarantine were severe.
"Asking somebody to stay confined to a room for two weeks and not go to their friends' rooms or go around the campus to see people they haven't seen in months," says senior Corwin Stites, "is a very difficult thing to do."
Stites, who's originally from Fayetteville, Ark., is a rising senior at the Naval Academy. He returned to campus in early July to start his quarantine period.
He said coming back was a little nerve-wracking, knowing how many restrictions would be placed on the students. "It seemed to me and a lot of my classmates that if we came back the chances we would be allowed to leave again were ... low to none."
But Stites, and other students I spoke with in Annapolis and at West Point, said they knew what they signed up for.
Senior Cameron Kinley is class president and a member of the Navy football team. He said being back for the long haul isn't so bad because he had extra time at home with family.
"I'm thankful that we had that time to be home during the quarantine because that was actually the longest I've been home since I came to the academy."
Officials at the service academies are hopeful that all the discipline, all the testing, all the restrictions will get them through the year safely.
Most faculty interviewed were optimistic that their reopening strategy could transition to civilian universities, but the students — Stites, Walker and Kinley — aren't so sure.
They said the advantages of the academies: discipline, lack of individualism, gated campuses — were huge factors in the success so far. But when thinking about their peers at civilian universities, they struggle to see it working.
"My little brother is in college, so I understand the procedures that they're taking," Kinley explained, "but they're nowhere near the precautions that we're taking at the Naval Academy."
And even then, with all these rules in Annapolis, you can see students sitting 3 feet away from each other, rather than 6. Students running without masks stopping briefly to chat. Even retirees walking their dogs through the open-air campus without masks.
Even with military precision, there are things you can't control.
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect rank for Curtis A. Buzzard. He is a brigadier general, not general.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.