LEXINGTON — Swinging open the motel room door, the Virginia Military Institute cadet seemed surprised to find himself face-to-face with his college's top leader.
"Oh! Hey, how are you, sir?" he asked Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins.
Wins, wearing a mask with the U.S. Army logo, asked the cadet and his roommate for their names, majors and hometowns before inquiring whether they needed anything.
After a brief chat, VMI's interim superintendent moved down the Econo Lodge corridor to the next room.
"I just wanted to make sure you guys were OK," Wins told another cadet, explaining his presence.
Wins last week began daily visits to check in with isolated and quarantined cadets. Each day, he visits one of the four hotels where VMI houses cadets who test positive for COVID-19 or who are a close contact of someone who has.
Like other colleges and universities, VMI experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases this month as students settled in for the spring semester. Unlike other colleges, VMI's unique military rigor and spartan living conditions have provided some additional challenges. But staff say initial issues — such as quarantined cadets reporting missed meals — have been addressed, and the number of active cases has declined over the past week.
"I would suspect we’re doing more for our cadets than what other colleges are doing for their students," spokesman Bill Wyatt said.
'All hands on deck'
When cases began to rapidly increase the first half of the month, VMI's staff had to quickly adjust to the large number of cadets who needed to be kept separate from the rest of the Corps of Cadets. What started as about 2% of total cadets in isolation or quarantine on Feb. 1 quickly grew to 26.5% on Feb. 13 and again on Feb. 17, a record high.
"That's the thing about this pandemic — when it hits you, it really does hit you hard," said Col. Kevin Faust, deputy commandant for support.
By Sunday, a total of 16.8% of cadets were in isolation or quarantine, a noticeable decline. Slightly less than 7% of those cadets had active cases, down from a peak of nearly 12%, according to VMI's case dashboard.
The military college's COVID-19 plan was "designed to expand and contract," Wyatt said. VMI had the space, but it was a matter of manpower, he said. It's been an "all hands on deck" situation, using staff from across the Institute, he said.
"Both semesters, we started with the plan, we knew we were going to house people, but ... not being able to really anticipate when you have to ratchet up and just being able to have that capability to put the transportation in place and go from not having any cadets in hotels to quickly filling up three or four hotels — that's been the most challenging," Faust said.
VMI uses the four hotels it contracted with at the start of the school year, a house on campus, and cadets whose entire barracks room is quarantined remain in their room and use a designated bathroom.
Wins implemented new restrictions Feb. 4 in an effort to curb cases, which included suspending visitation within the barracks, enforcing 10 feet of separation between cadets during physical training, closing campus to visitors and suspending march downs, meaning that cadets didn't have to march to the dining hall for meals after roll calls. There's also only one roll call, for breakfast, Wyatt said.
Wins said that VMI keeps detailed data on cases and ensures cadets have the care they need.
"I think we're in a good spot," he said.
VMI's public-facing database shows the number of current active cadet and staff cases, number of cadets in quarantine, number of cadets tested, status of cases and, most recently, a graph showing the seven-day rolling average.
Behind the scenes, staff rely on a multi-tabbed, colorful spreadsheet tracking every isolated and quarantined cadet, managed by Command Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, VMI's director of student activities. The spreadsheet lists cadets' names, gender, their location, whether they tested positive, whether they have dietary restrictions and the date they can return to normal activities, among other information.
Feeding hungry — and quarantined — cadets
Anyone at VMI will tell you that cadets eat a lot. So perhaps no department has had to evolve more quickly than auxiliary services, which oversees dining services.
Lt. Col. Lee Clark, director of auxiliary services, said the adjustment has been "an hourly challenge."
His team monitors the massive spreadsheet constantly, watching for changes so they can adjust meals as needed.
"It does change between breakfast and supper," Clark said. "It’s been known to change between breakfast and lunch."
Cadets previously told The Roanoke Times they experienced issues with meal deliveries and receiving food.
"I think we've figured out the systems to address problems," said Lt. Col. Alyssa Astphan, assistant director for auxiliary services.
Clark said communication has made the biggest difference, both to cadets and parents and alumni.
They've bolstered awareness of the fact that cadets are given Clark and Astphan's cellphone numbers to report problems, and Astphan recently recorded a video about the quarantine meal process, Clark said.
There have been times when the delivery team has turned around to go back to the hotel and deliver a meal to a cadet who missed one, he said. They retooled the delivery process last week to deliver a boxed lunch with breakfast, cutting down on the back and forth trips and potential for delayed deliveries.
The process is constantly evolving, Clark said. In anticipation of icy roads with last week's winter storm, for example, dinner delivery included a continental breakfast for the following morning.
"It’s challenging, but our team has stepped up to do it," Clark said.
Cadets receive a hot and cold box for dinner. The hot box always includes a lean protein, vegetable and starch. The cold box includes drinks, fruit, snacks and dessert.
"We want to provide them with as much good calories as we can, as feasible," Clark said.
On Wednesday afternoon, dining hall staff spooned heaping portions of chicken, broccoli, mashed potatoes and bread into meal containers. Cadets also received water, salad, fruit snacks, a granola bar, Pop Tarts, banana and fruit cup.
Hot containers are placed into large warming boxes that keep the food fresh while being transported to the barracks and hotels.
While Wins was visiting the Econo Lodge, someone dropped off bags of food outside one of the doors. Wyatt explained that cadets were also using Instacart and other food delivery services.
Cadets told Wins that they have been receiving enough food.
"We actually almost have too much food," one cadet said.
Cadets in quarantine and isolation are allowed to walk the perimeter of the hotel to get exercise, and many have roommates, but they are otherwise alone for 14 days.
"This is kind of nice, talking to someone," one cadet told Wins.
Maj. John Casper, the associate chaplain, has made a concerted effort to connect with those cadets through his daily virtual "wellness and welfare check."
The half-hour meetings allow him to "get eyes on cadets." He checks in on their morale and health, sees if there are any problems, reviews the dashboard with them and answers questions.
The meetings are "very well-attended," Casper said.
"It's the highlight of my day," he said. "I think it it is for many of them as well, or at least that's what they say."
Cadets seemed pleasantly surprised when Wins started visiting the hotels, Casper said.
"That was a really big deal for them," he said.
Morale is "surprisingly good," Casper has observed, adding that cadets are resilient.
He informed cadets at the end of a daily meeting last week that he would be interviewed by The Roanoke Times the following day. He asked what they wanted relayed.
According to Casper, one cadet immediately chimed in: "Tell our parents that we're doing OK."