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No yelling, fewer dropouts during swab summer at Coast Guard Academy

New London — When the coronavirus struck earlier this year, life at the Coast Guard Academy changed.

Cadets, who were on spring break, were told not to return to campus, then brought back several months later in stages where they underwent testing and a quarantine period. Their classes remain remote, and they spend most of their days wearing masks and traveling around in smaller groups.

The changes extended to the summer training that all new cadets go through, which was shortened from seven weeks to five and did not feature upperclassmen shouting orders at the new cadets called swabs — usually a hallmark of their indoctrination to the academy. The physical part of their training was delayed by two weeks while they quarantined on campus.

The new protocols were necessary to prevent the spread of the virus among the swabs, who usually spend the summer living and training in close quarters, but they also brought about unexpected results.

The retention rate for Swab Summer was the highest it has been in recent years. Nine out of 265 cadets did not finish the training compared to the 15 to 20 who have dropped out each of the past few summers.

Academy officials say the more subdued start might have helped the new cadets better adjust to military life, and Superintendent Rear Adm. Bill Kelly has directed a group of academy officials to look at whether some of the changes that were instituted to combat COVID-19 should be made permanent.

While the summer was arguably less physically rigorous than it was for past classes, it was likely more mentally challenging for the Class of 2024, members of which were already dealing with a less than desirable end to their high school careers, said Capt. Arthur Ray, commandant of cadets.

With that in mind, the second-class cadets, who oversee the swabs’ summer training, were instructed to “lead with empathy,” Ray said, and that meant no screaming in the faces of the swabs — both to prevent the spread of the virus and to not add further stress on the swabs, who were already dealing with a host of changes.

Ray said he hopes the second-class cadets, known as the cadre, didn’t feel robbed of their duties and instead look back on this summer as a valuable experience — leading during a time of uncertainty — as they go on to become officers in the Coast Guard.

All of the changes have helped the academy keep its infection rate low. Just nine of the 1,100 cadets in the student body have tested positive for COVID-19, with most reported in March and linked to a spring break trip to Spain.

So far, there have been no cases among faculty or staff.

For several weeks now, the academy’s health clinic has carried out surveillance testing — testing a random group of 30 to 40 cadets and staff each day — to ensure there are no outbreaks, especially given that many people who contract COVID-19 exhibit no symptoms. All nine cadets who tested positive were asymptomatic, academy officials have said. The results are then analyzed in-house within a few hours through a system set up by the academy’s Science Department.

j.bergman@theday.com

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