Class 53 overcomes a virtual ChalleNGe, as Class 54 prepares for hybrid experience

Candidates for Class 54 of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy road march during the acclimation phase of ChalleNGe in October 2020 at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. After the two-week acclimation phase, the candidates transitioned to cadets. (Photo courtesy Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia- The COVID-19 pandemic led the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy to introduce a virtual, on-line course for Class 53, which ran from May- August 2020. Now Class 54, which began Oct. 5, is preparing for a hybrid course, composed of both in-person and virtual attendance.

Using video teleconferencing technology, staff and cadets of Class 53 had a steep learning curve. Despite the challenges they all faced, the program was still able to make a difference in the lives of the cadets, even virtually.

“Class 53 was definitely unique, being all virtual taught us one really valuable lesson – how important Challenge is to these young people,” said Terence Kreitner, lead teacher at ChalleNGe.  “We had more of an opportunity to experience them in their ‘normal’ home life, and got to see up close many of the struggles that cadets have at home and how being away from home at Challenge can build and strengthen them.”

Kreitner said the staff and cadets all adapted to the online environment pretty quickly.

“The cadets are used to online learning while us adults took a little longer,” he said. “But once we hit that groove, our daily schedule went smoothly.”

Class 53 conducts virtual awards ceremony
Commonwealth ChalleNGe conducts a virtual awards ceremony for the cadets of Class 53 Aug. 26, 2020. Using video teleconferencing technology, staff and cadets of Class 53 had a steep learning curve. Despite the challenges they all faced, the program was still able to make a difference in the lives of the cadets, even virtually. (Screen capture)

Mark Chicoine, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe, explained members of Class 53 couldn’t technically graduate because they didn’t meet the Department of Defense-mandated numbers of days physically on campus. However, members of that class are getting all of the full placement services ChalleNGe provides its graduates, including helping get the GED to students who wanted to get their GED.

Kreitner said several cadets stood out and cited Catrina Hamacher as an example.

“She had excellent attendance and when she had to miss a class, she communicated with her academic advisor,” he said. “She also was great in class participation and always asked for more work.”

He explained Hamacher passed her general equivalency exam early and then enlisted in the U.S. Army. In fact, several members of Class 53 already joined the military and some members of Class 54 are interested in the military too.

 “Class 53 was a learning experience,” Chicoine said. “We really learned how to operate in a virtual environment. And not just classroom work but operations and counselors have learned how to do it.”

They are using that knowledge as they combine in-person and virtual learning for Class 54. Candidates for Class 54 began arriving Oct. 5, 2020, and following the two-week acclimation phase, 64 cadets began classes Oct. 19. At the same time 40 students began remote classes for Class 54.

Chicoine explained the cadets currently “on deck” will go straight through Thanksgiving and then go home Dec. 18. After the holidays, they’ll go through the virtual part of the courses.

“On Jan. 5 the current virtual kids will come on campus and they’ll do their 11 weeks here,” Chicoine said. “Then we’ll graduate both groups as a class.”

The unique situation is a result of extensive planning and coordination between Commonwealth ChalleNGe, the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education.

“It’s really been thinking out of the box and it stretched everyone’s thinking,” Chicoine said. “Because you can’t be complacent. For example, you have to look at the level of detail required to moving one group of kids out of the classroom, clean it and then bring in another group.”

Their reopening plan was approved by the Department of Health and the Department of Education, but because of how the ChalleNGe facility is laid out, they were limited to 69 kids on campus as opposed to the normal 150-160 in each class.

Thus the hybrid plan for Class 54 was born, combining the lessons learned from the virtual experience in Class 53 with all of the new protocols with in-person cadets for Class 54.

Two weeks before their arrival Chicoine explained to the incoming cadets the extensive protocols that would be in place for them and asked them to take them seriously. On the first day, they were tested on the protocols to ensure they were understood. For example, masks are to be worn at all times, extensive hand washing and sanitation stations are located throughout campus, and proper social distancing is being enforced.  

“They’ve also been operating in a bubble by platoon only,” Chicoine explained. “We haven’t operated as a company at all. The same staff is with each platoon so in case someone tests positive, we can isolate it.”

All cadets were tested upon their arrival and then again two weeks later. They will not be allowed to leave campus during this class and are not allowed any visitors. These same testing protocols will be repeated in January when the current virtual cadets come on campus.

If a cadet goes AWOL, they will not be allowed back because they’ll have “broken the bubble.”

Since staff members will still be going home and “breaking the bubble” each day, Chicoine is working to have them tested for coronavirus every five days with the rapid coronavirus test, per the Department of Health recommendations.

There are some physical changes in how the cadets live their daily lives as well. In addition to wearing masks at all times, ChalleNGe had small walls built around the cadets’ desks that include small lockers.

“We did it for COVID-19 purposes but we also looked at it from the long view,” Chicoine said. “It gives them their own area of responsibility and now kids have their own spot to go to. That has really helped with our behavior.”

“The staff has been performing tremendously and the kids are responding to it,” he added. “I think the COVID-19 protocols are helping. You can’t get in someone’s face now because that could be dangerous.”

While Chicoine plans to institute these protocols for all future classes, he is hoping to have a normal class size when Class 55 is scheduled to begin April, 5, 2021.

“If the protocols continue to be successful then I’ll ask to bring more kids on campus. Class 53 was a learning curve. This hybrid class is the next step. Hopefully we can go back to full classes in April. If for some reason we can’t, we know we have a system in place we can do for the next class.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. It is a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.

ChalleNGe aims to intervene in the lives of 16-18 year-olds by providing values, skills, education and self-discipline needed to produce responsible, productive citizens, and to do so in a highly-structured learning environment.