It may be entirely different than most starts to the school year, but the cadets at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) here in Kingston are persevering, getting the year off to a successful start.
Not only is RMC dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic like schools around the globe, the 2020-2021 school year is starting while RMC is also dealing with a cyber attack that downed its network at the beginning of July. Additionally, the institution was unable to carry out the start-of-year training that cadets normally undergo at Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean, Que.
But, while the 223 new officer cadets may be facing different circumstances than those who came before them, the school year is getting off to a successful start, according to Col. Corinna Heilman, Director of Cadets at RMC.
“Things have gone really well. We’re thrilled to be able to start the program this year. When we shut down in March, we didn’t know what the future would hold, so we did a lot of planning to try to set the conditions so that we could offer a revised program this year in a limited capacity,” said Heilman. “We were really pleased that we were able to meet the conditions and we were able to figure out a way to still deliver the regular officer training program experience to our first-year cadets, and set them up for success.”
- The new cadets have had no issues with COVID-19, and self-isolated for their first two weeks in Kingston.
- The downed RMC computer network has not limited the cadets’ access to the internet, nor to the networks created specifically for the online delivery of academic courses through RMC this year.
- The cadets will remain on the RMC peninsula for the fall term. Academic bridging courses have been completed, and the cadets are currently undergoing in-person military indoctrination training.
- Cadets will begin academic courses online on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.
- Cadets will complete the traditional rite of passage, marching through the Memorial Arch to mark the beginning of their studies at RMC and their careers as members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Erring on the side of caution
Instead of the training in Saint-Jean, the students arrived at RMC over the August long weekend, straight from their homes. From there, they began a 14-day period of self-isolation in an effort to stave off the spread of COVID-19.
“The reason we did that was just to make sure that we could keep both the new first years and our senior cadets who have returned to the College to help us implement the program, and our staff safe,” Heilman explained. “We erred on the side of caution, put them into self-isolation for 14 days, and during that time, they finished their academic bridging program. That was an online learning program that was specifically designed to bridge the gap between the early dismissal of high schools back in March and the transition to university-level learning.”
Heilman explained that the program was customized to the students depending on which schools and provinces the first years were coming from. They have completed their 14-day self-isolation and their academic bridging program at this time, and completed a little bit of military administration work, but the College really focused on keeping the cadets safe and getting them used to living in a different environment with other people, all while maintaining health and safety protocols regarding COVID-19.
“I am pleased to report that during that period of 14 days, we didn’t have any issues with COVID-19,” Heilman said with excitement. “It was really reassuring for us that we had made the right decision to do their 14 days of self-isolation.”
Knowing their cadets and everyone else on the RMC peninsula (where all cadets are to remain for the coming term) are free of COVID-19, the students have been grouped into cohorts of approximately 70 naval and officer cadets. These cohorts combine the first-year students with some of the selected third-year students the College has brought back to help implement command and control, Heilman explained. Each cohort lives in a separate dormitory and has a designated eating area. Now that the 14-day self-isolation period is complete, RMC has been able to implement some relaxed Public Health measures when the students are within their cohorts – for example, when with their own cohort, students do not have to wear a mask unless a member of staff is involved.
“This enables us to execute some essential military training that would difficult to achieve had we not established the cohorts,” Heilman said. “So that’s working out really well for us… When we developed this plan, we had linked with our medical professionals at 33 Canadian Forces Health Services Centre, and with representatives from the Health Unit here in Kingston to make sure that our concept was sound from a medical practitioners and a best practices perspective.”
Increased social media presence
Knowing this school year would be difficult and different for not only the cadets, but also for their family and friends, RMC put a strong emphasis on social media presence during this time – a trend that will continue throughout the year, as families are unable to visit their loved ones currently living at RMC.
The arrival of the cadets and the photos that were shared on social media brought about a new form of communication for the institution, Heilman expressed, noting that it was great to see parents, family members, and friends communicating in the comment sections and thanking RMC for letting them catch a glimpse of their loved ones’ activities from afar.
“I have been blown away by the works of our public affairs team. You know, although I am here every day and I see it happening firsthand, I look forward to the updates on Facebook, and I’m particularly interested in the comments that the parents are posting, because it is an unusual year, this is a new way of doing business for us,” Heilman expressed.
“I think it’s really important that we continue to find ways to communicate with friends and family, and to show them that their loved ones, that those who are most important to them, are here and they’re doing well, and we have them engaged in a program,” she continued. “It helps situate the experiences that they might be hearing about from their loved ones as they get phone calls and text on both good days and bad. There are challenging times, and with each new day, there’s a new adventure, there’s a new opportunity, there’s a new challenge for the first years.”
Down to business: Getting to learn the lay of the land at RMC
With the self-isolation period complete, the cadets began their military indoctrination on the week beginning Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.
“This is where our new recruits, our first years, finally get a bit of a taste of what it means to be a member of the Canadian Armed Forces,” Heilman said.
This has included a number of things, such as medical and dental exams and paperwork, and the issuing of ID cards and having the cadets’ fingerprints added to the database. It’s also included a trip to the barber for their inaugural military haircuts, and a trip onto base for a visit to the CFB Kingston Clothing Stores to have the cadets fitted for their kits and uniforms.
On top of that, drill classes have begun, allowing the cadets to learn how members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) move from Point A to Point B in a professional manner, Heilman explained.
“We’ve also done some essential training from a CAF conduct perspective. Because they’re new, they don’t necessarily understand what our rules and regulations are, so we have to start at the very basics and teach them the rank structure, teach them the National Defence Act,” she said.
There has also been a big focus on Operation Honour, the Canadian Armed Forces Department of National Defence Operation that was launched a number of years ago to combat harmful, inappropriate sexual behaviour, as well as learning about hateful conduct, so that they gain a better understanding on what is acceptable behaviour in the Canadian Armed Forces and what is not.
And, of course, there has been training on basic things, such as fire prevention, how to maintain their kit, how to make their beds properly, and how to maintain their rooms.
“It’s kind of the full gamut to set them up for success as new members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” Heilman said.
Heilman said that, as the students moved out of self-isolation, there was a mixture of excitement and apprehension as they saw the end of their safety bubbles.
“Every day is a little bit more expected of them as they learn those new skills, but for the most part, as I circulate about and talk with them, they’re excited to finally be embracing and embarking on what they considered as they joined the military, such as wearing their uniform, learning how to come to attention on the parade square,” she said.
Moving forward with education – and a new network for the students
Right now, the cadets are completing their second week of military indoctrination, which is delivered in person. When the academic school year begins on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, the students will move to online course delivery. The upper-year RMC students who are currently at home across the country, will also be receiving their course delivery online.
Obviously, since RMC’s main network issues remain unresolved and the cadets have already completed some online training, the College has created a solution for the students to have access to school networks and the internet.
“In the dormitories, the cadets do have access to the internet. RMC is a bring-your-own device environment, so they brought their laptops with them to enable them to finish the academic bridging program, and they’ll again use their own devices for the academic year in the fall,” Heilman said, noting that the students also have their cellphones with them to allow them to connect with family and friends.
“As we look at delivering the academic program online, essential network capabilities that include the university’s learning management system have been restored to enable that.”
Heilman, a native Kingstonian who completed high school at Regiopolis Notre Dame and then studied at St. Lawrence College before enrolling at RMC, said she actually wasn’t sure she’d ever be posted back to Kingston. Last summer, Heilman, who is an Army Logistics Officer by trade, was delighted to be posted to her current position.
And while her knowledge of RMC and CFB Kingston, and the greater Kingston area has been a great asset in helping her to make students feel more at home, she knows this year will be different.
“Downtown Kingston is not unfamiliar to me. I was once a high school student and a university student in this town, so I’m familiar with their experience, as well. And I have two children, my children are 20 and 22, so I’m familiar with the age group. Last year, to kind of give the cadets a bit of situational awareness, I told them that they can expect to see me downtown,” she said with a laugh. “That’s not necessarily a concern this year because right now everyone is restricted to the peninsula, but it was certainly a way that I was able to connect with the senior cadets last year.”
Still, Heilman said working with the cadets and ensuring their programming is being delivered correctly will be a huge part of getting them comfortable with life at RMC and here in Kingston.
“We don’t know what the future holds for next term, but we’re certainly looking forward to figuring that out, recognizing that we’re likely faced with a COVID-19 environment for the foreseeable future,” she said. “Things have gone really well so far, and we’re confident we can continue this success.”
And as for that all-important rite of passage: tradition shall continue. The cadets will mark the beginning of their studies at RMC by marching through the Memorial Arch, a tradition that also sees RMC graduates repeat the march at the end of their studies.