How Randolph-Macon Academy is prepping for in-person classes

August 18, 2020

WTOP/Neal Augenstein

“Male on the hall,” calls out retired Air Force Brigadier General David Wesley as he gets ready to enter the mostly empty girls’ dormitory at Randolph-Macon Academy, in Front Royal, Virginia. After hearing the acknowledgment from a female supervisor on duty, Wesley swings open the door, ready to demonstrate how the private boarding school intends to open safely, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Gen. Wesley — who introduces himself as “Dave” — is the head of school at the academy, which sits atop a hill in Front Royal, Virginia. “If you see it on the web page as ‘President,’ it just means I’m the principal of the high school.”

With students arriving over the weekend, registration continued Tuesday at Randolph-Macon, where 75% of the population consists of boarding students from around the country. The remaining 25% are day students at the academy, which offers university-preparatory education in an Air Force Junior ROTC program.

Wesley said most of the students don’t make a career of the military: “The military isn’t what we teach, it’s how we teach it,” he said — meaning that what’s learned at the academy will be valuable to a young person as they become an adult.

While most public schools surrounding the D.C. area will be beginning the year virtually, Wesley said the academy spent the late spring and summer — after the arrival of the coronavirus — preparing to be able to open in person for the fall semester.

“Our goal has always been to prepare young people for success, in college and beyond,” said Wesley. “Boarding schools do that in a kinetic way — young people work together, live together, eat together, strive together, in and out of the classroom.”

“In a sense, you can’t do boarding school unless you’re here,” he said.

So, Wesley and staff have made some logistical tweaks and done a lot of planning to be ready for students from all over — 25% of students are international — with the intention of providing a safe, stimulating school experience.

Arriving students will be tested for COVID-19, and be quarantined for a day or so until their results are received. Social distancing and the wearing of masks are built into the experience.

Yet Wesley is a realist: “Twenty-six years on active duty taught me that no plan survives contact with the enemy,” he said.

With decades of military training and leadership behind him, Wesley and the Randolph-Macon Academy staff, students, and parents are all-in — a year of tuition for upper school boarding students costs about $41,000.

“I’ve never seen our students more anxious to get back to class, because they want to be with each other,” Wesley said.

“Requirements that are given to us come from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Virginia Department of Health, and the governor has been really clear about us following those guidelines,” Wesley said. “RMA is large enough, she can hold 400 or 500 students easily — we’re in the 230 range right now.”

“Only one student will occupy [each of] our rooms this fall, as long as we have space for single rooms,” said Wesley. “It’s not required, but it’s something we think will reduce the chances that if we have a COVID case, that it would spread to a roommate.”

If a student contracts coronavirus, they will be sequestered — Wesley said the school has a wing of rooms dedicated for that purpose. The rooms would be cleaned daily, and meals would be brought to the student. If an infected student doesn’t have symptoms, they can do school work virtually while recovering.

“Kids want to congregate; that’s part of their nature,” said Wesley. But the size of gatherings has to be strictly limited. “This wasn’t large enough for our entire student body even before the virus,” Wesley said in the recreation room. “We limit access, based on timing — some kids have intramurals; others are doing sports, or the units win a competition so they’ve got privileges to come here at a certain time.”

With all the students’ hands coming in contact with Foosball, air hockey, ping pong, and other games, the equipment will have to be cleaned after each use, Wesley said.

“It would be easier if we had a bubble,” said Wesley. “The reality is, 25% of our student body is a day population. Our bus driver will take their temperature before they board the bus, and we’ll ask them the screening questions.”

Wesley said the school is in touch with parents in the event a student’s family travels to a coronavirus hotspot. “If they’re going somewhere that’s a high-risk area, we’ll be aware and can take precautions. We haven’t faced it yet, but we’ve built branches and sequels in our protocol to deal with that, if it happens.”

“I taught a class in this classroom last year — there were 15 desks in here,” recalled Wesley. “Now, there are 11, and they’re at a distance of six feet.”

High-touch surfaces will be wiped down after every class by the teacher, said Wesley.

With fewer than a dozen students in most classes, masks will be worn.

“In our classes, at least initially, for as many weeks as we think it takes to be safe, students will wear a mask in class, at a distance of more than six feet,” said Wesley.

Adult staff members will be responsible for cleaning high-touch surfaces in classrooms and common areas. However, students are expected to clean their own rooms and help prevent the spread of the virus by wiping down shared equipment.

“They had that responsibility before; they’ll continue to have it now,” Wesley said. “We’ll be providing the cleaning materials that are safe for their use, that are also shown to kill the virus.”

Wesley said a lot of cleaning will be done.

“We have a repository of [supplies] that we’ve stocked up — more than a year’s supply.”

Former U.S. Army General and 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, knew things don’t always go as planned.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” Eisenhower famously said.

Wesley agrees: “You can come up with any detailed plan you want — it’s a point of departure from which you will have to adapt.”

In the midst of the pandemic, with changing public health guidance, Wesley has been honest with families about the challenges ahead.

“I would be shocked if we make it through the first two weeks without some substantial change, and we’ve told our parents that,” said Wesley.

“This is where we’re going to start; we’re going to keep you informed if we need to make a change,” he told parents. “We’re going to make changes when we think they’re required, with one goal: A safe education for your child.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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