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Overcoming COVID-19 challenges, USAF EC instructors find ways to train

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ashley Hyatt
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs

 Laptop? Check. Charger? Check. Loads of coffee to get through this unprecedented time? Check!

While this may have been how many Airmen were preparing to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors from the 421st Combat Training Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, were preparing for something very different.

When Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sent out a memo in April stating pre-deployment training would continue, the 421st CTS had work to do, starting with changing the way the courses are taught.

“We had to compare every job qualification standard and every advanced deployment requirement pre-COVID with what we could continue to do safely and effectively in order to meet theater entry requirements,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Wadekamper, 421st CTS contingency response course director.

Wadekamper, along with his fellow course directors and a group of instructor subject matter experts put their heads together to rewrite lesson plans, by creating a more virtual learning environment or by cutting out material that wouldn’t allow proper social distancing, based on the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Several changes were made to ensure the safety for both students and instructors through the duration of training,” Wadekamper explained.

As indicated by the instructors’ training guides, safety is the primary concern, but now everyone has to be even more cautious.

“One of the biggest challenges was making sure we had enough of the right cleaning supplies for the different surfaces our students were coming in contact with,” said Master Sgt. Lauri Visinski, 421st CTS logistics compound section chief. “Luckily, we were already using a medical-grade cleaning product that kills the virus 99 percent of the time.”

The squadron faced other challenges including the need to quarantine students, feed them, transport them, all while keeping them socially distanced and COVID free. The squadron, consisting of 42 different Air Force Specialty Codes, along with their sister squadron, the 423rd Mobility Training Squadron, came together and laid out what they could bring to the table based on their job skills.

“When this came about, everybody had a skill at play,” said Tech. Sgt. Chase Cather, 421st CTS fleet management NCO in charge. “For example, we needed to figure out vehicles, and I knew where to go and I had access to the Vehicle Support Chain Operations Squadron. Our [Independent Duty Medical Technicians] had access to the medical world, and our services Airmen worked the food issues with the dining facility.”

Cather noted how impressive it was to see everyone come together and get the job done.  

Once students arrived at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center for training, they were required to in-process a little differently than normal, using a system specifically designed for COVID-19 operations by the 421st CTS that had never been executed before. Before entering training, the students completed a medical screening and selected the meals they would like to have delivered from the dining facility prior to the start of a 14-day quarantine in on-base lodging. The students are on a restriction of movement, which doesn’t allow them to leave their rooms, except for scheduled physical training while continuing to practice social distancing.

“We encourage them to go out to PT, so they can socially interact and can get some fresh air,” said Tech. Sgt. John Nowotarski, 421st CTS quarantine operations mayor. “Before PT time was authorized, you would see students running in their rooms through their window.

“One student actually ran a marathon in his room from the door to the window and back, two miles a day through the duration of his quarantine,” explained Nowotarski.

Ultimately, the health and welfare of the students during quarantine rests on the shoulders of the 421st CTS first sergeant, the USAF Expeditionary Center chaplain, as well as individuals like Nowotarski and a team of “undershirts” from across the units at the USAF Expeditionary Center’s campus who assist the first sergeant with the students’ needs. The team was able to receive donations from the USO and the American Red Cross to keep the students entertained with books, puzzles and snacks.

After their quarantines are over, the students that come to the USAF Expeditionary Center begin their training, whether it is mission-essential pre-deployment training, Phoenix Raven training, or the host of Contingency Response courses taught by the 421st CTS, unlike the students before them. Six-feet apart, with masks on their face and minimal physical interaction to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the USAF Expeditionary Center continues to find ways to execute its education mission.