COLORADO SPRINGS — Roughly 4,000 cadets are back on the Air Force Academy campus after being sent home in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Mark Esper designated all military accession sources and training pipelines mission-essential during the pandemic. The Academy is one of the first universities in the nation to have all of its students back.
Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 12 with combined in-person and online learning. Some in-person classes will be outside and larger classrooms will be used for smaller classrooms.
Cadets will be tested in their first two weeks on campus and on days 7, 10, and 14 afterward. Providing random cadet testing will help identify any potential asymptomatic cases in the earliest stages possible.
In order to maintain adequate quarantine and isolation space in dormitories, 400 “healthy” cadets will live in off-campus hotel rooms during the fall semester.
The academy said the mechanics of how to bring the entire student body back was a daunting challenge but achievable with the help of "The Pandemic Math Team."
"The biology department teamed up with the math department. We have about 20 PHDs that are looking at this problem and have been for months," said Major Erin Almand, assistant professor of Biology at the Academy.
Almand says back in May, the team was given the task of creating a plan that would allow all 4,000 of its cadets to return on campus.
"We developed two computer models that let us look at different policy options and estimate what the effects those options would be. We quickly found out we could bring back safely 4,000 cadets," said Doug Wickert, professor of engineering at the Academy.
The COVID-19 testing program allows the team to prevent outbreaks among the cadets by using the basic principles of the virus to understand how the virus moves through population. The team then uses the data to make predictions.
"So if we have five people affected, what does that look like? If we have a spike, what does it look like? Then tailor the testing we are able to do in the biology department using pool testing to minimize the amount of resources to get the most bang for our buck," said Almand.
The team then takes that information and puts it against the number of testing that is required. Almand says most of their cadets will fall under the "asymptomatic group" which means they won't know if they're sick, but by testing them every week or two weeks, they'll be able to stop any spread of the virus.
"One of the reasons the surveillance testing is essential to our strategy is that it gives us a window, it gives us a signal to what's happening," said Wickert.
Now that students are back on campus, the Pandemic Math Team will continue its work to ensure cadets, staff and the entire USAFA community are safe. They'll take the weekly testing results and feed it into the computer model for real-time results in order to make predictions on what could happen next.
The academy says this will be important to mitigate any potential outbreaks and give them tools to adapt to changing conditions.