Corps, ROTC begin fall semester training, adjusting for coronavirus health protocols

The thud of boots on pavement, occasional brassy blasts from the band and packs of gray “Corps of Cadets” T-shirts signal a new school year’s approach as surely as robins signal spring.

The arrival of rooks in a two-day surge this past week pushed the Corps toward its full 2020-21 capacity. The Corps and the ROTC units have planned training with the coronavirus pandemic in mind, joining the campuswide effort.

Col. Michael Titus, the Corps’ commandant, Col. Matthew Smith, dean of the College of National Service and Frank Vanecek, Norwich’s senior vice president of student affairs and technology, have worked together to ensure that training is COVID-19-compliant.

“I tell (the student leaders), ‘For every challenge, you need to find the opportunity.’” Col. Michael Titus, commandant of the Corps of Cadets

In town halls, webinars and other communications, Titus has explained how training will adapt to circumstance. If training is outdoors, and space allows for physical distancing and exertion is involved, cadets’ masks may be off, he said; If cadets will be close together, in a classroom, for example, masks will be on.

Wherever they are, Smith said, everyone will be able to adjust quickly.

“Masks are part of the uniform now,” he said. “In a heartbeat, you could go from a large spaced-out formation to a tighter formation or maybe have to go inside … you want to make sure you’re prepared.”

Smith, a U.S. Air Force officer and leader of Norwich’s Air Force ROTC detachment, said he and Titus have worked nonstop for weeks on how to train, how to run reveille, how to convene for formations. Decisions were thoughtful, painstaking, and collaborative, he said.

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Corps of Cadets Commandant Michael Titus has said student leaders will have new opportunities to shape training this semester given COVID-19-sparked changes in the fall semester events calendar. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Smith added that both he and Titus have understood the need to focus on the people, especially with some students studying from home this fall.

“Even though we’re not making face-to-face contact, we’re still making human contact,” he said. “And we’ve got to stay true to that, no matter what happens going forward.”

Some traditional activities, including the Dog River Run, return, adjusted for COVID-19. Sunday’s version will involve smaller groups, which Vanecek likened to family units, rather than a full platoon. The small-group approach will apply to briefings, he suggested; there will be no shoulder-to-shoulder en masse Mack Hall gatherings this fall.

“Norwich is steeped in tradition; in some cases, we’ve done the same thing for hundreds of years, which is to say that change comes slowly,” he said. “But now, some changes have come rapidly simply because of the COVID environment, and some of them will be carried into the future. There are some we’re going to like, there are things we’re not going to like.” 

Vanecek said he hoped the new smaller units would spark some of Norwich’s trademark can-do spirit. Smaller units allow for cohesion and intimacy, he said, which stokes optimism.

Patrick Gardner, a retired U.S. Navy commander who is the Corps’ oper­ations and training director, said other cadet traditions have also been COVID-19-adjusted. Nov. 10 Veterans Day exercises, for example, will be open to faculty and staff, but not to the community, as in previous, non-COVID-19 years. The Oct. 24 Regimental Ball, he said, is being reimagined as a dining in event for on-campus cadets; group size will be limited to comply with Vermont Health Department guidelines.

Meaningful substitutes

If COVID-19 outright prevents a traditional activity, Smith said he and the others looked for a meaningful replacement. Because this fall’s Tunbridge World’s Fair is canceled, ROTC cadets won’t be able to park cars and raise money there. So, Smith said, the cadets will make special face masks, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifications, to sell on campus and replace some lost income.

Some Corps members came Aug. 8 and Aug. 9 from states with higher rates of COVID-19 and participated in a campus quarantine. Titus said morale seems good, given the circumstances.

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An ROTC cadet stands amid traffic at the Tunbridge World’s Fair in September 2015. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of this year’s fair, eliminating a traditional fundraiser — the cadets had parked cars. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Titus said the absence of some campus activities — Homecoming, Parent and Family Weekend and the postponed Commencement, for example, will all be virtual — has left room, and time, for the Corps’ student leaders, including new Regimental Commander Caleb Miller, to shape their training.

“I tell (the student leaders), ‘For every challenge, you need to find the opportunity,’” Titus said.

Vanecek said the campus has collectively seen and met the challenge of adjusting routines. The first mass COVID-19 test at Plumley Armory, for faculty and staff Aug. 5, involved several hundred people and went smoothly, a testament to good planning and concentrated effort.

“In my 45 years at Norwich, I’ve never seen campus as busy as I’ve seen it this summer,” he said. “The entire campus has been working tremendously hard to make this happen. There’s a hope and there’s a willingness to make it work.”

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(Slideshow photos by Norwich University Corps of Cadets: c/Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Barnes, c/Cpl. Nicholas Chafardon, c/Cpl. Charlotte Charbonneau, c/Maj. Daniel DeRosa, c/Staff Sgt. Jacqueline Federico, c/Cpl. Zane Fockler, c/1st Lt. Russell Graham, c/Sgt. 1st Class Olivia Kelliher, c/Cpl. Sebastian Maldonado, c/1st Lt. Lizzie Niven, c/Cpl. Alison Rothrock, c/Master Sgt. Desiree Waterman.)

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