Lincoln's Challenge Academy, cadets settle back in

Lincoln's Challenge Academy cadets study during a recent class. Using a military environment, the National Guard-directed academy works with high school dropouts, many of whom go on to earn their high school diplomas.

RANTOUL — The National Basketball Association has its bubble. So does Lincoln’s Challenge Academy. Sort of.

The bubble is for cadets living at the academy. Support staff are allowed to come and go to their homes.

Living and working in a communal environment, instruction has been ongoing at the academy since mid-summer after it shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a very unique year,” LC Director Michael Haerr said.

“It’s downscaled from what we usually do because of all the COVID-19 precautions. We have to make sure we have enough space for 6 feet distance.”

Cadets don’t have an opportunity to go home on weekends or have family visits.

“They don’t have that much opportunity anyway because of the military environment,” Haerr said. “Visitation has been restricted for safety reasons.”

The academy teaches high school dropouts in a military setting, working with them to earn their high school diploma. Cadets attend GED classes for about four hours daily. Classes go over various subjects and information related to the GED testing areas.

Cadets also receive CPR and first aid training by a certified medical supervisor. The academy also partners with Parkland College to offer a basic college-level computer skills class and includes an introduction to computers, hands-on experience with Windows OS, spreadsheets, databases, word processor, document production, and creation. Cadets obtain three college credits for completion.

Cadets can also take a food handlers course and upon satisfactory completion will receive a certification by the state of Illinois. The academy also partners with the University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Nutrition Education Program teaching the basics of healthy eating, food prep, recipes and other health-conscious concerns.

“The curriculum has changed,” Haerr said. “Obviously we’re staying much closer to campus and not doing face-to-face service to the community, so we are doing more cleanup work.”

Before COVID, the academy worked with Head Start and participated in a number of area parades and other community events. The academy has been working with the village of Rantoul to do area cleanup of the parks, around roadways and in area municipalities “where we can make sure there are small groups in open spaces away from the public. We’re trying to maintain our bubble,” Haerr said.

While challenge academies in some states remained open early in the pandemic, Lincoln’s Challenge ended classes in mid-March before its mid-summer reopening.

“We had a lot of help from the Department of Military Affairs,” Haerr said. “The department has a senior surgeon in the Air Force who came down and gave us a lot of guidance and recommendations while we were closed, including more time in the schedule for health, additional showers, slowing down the rate of movement so we could spread out and work on training for social distance, work on sanitation, rearranging the way we had our beds so everybody had 6 feet between head and foot in the building.”

Previously, beds were a locker-width apart, about 3 1/2 feet.

The academy didn’t take in as many cadets as normal — bringing in 130 in two groups. The maximum capacity per class is 144.

Those cadets who were sent home in mid-March and wanted to return were allowed to complete their education. COVID tests on all cadets were done in Champaign, and followup tests took place in early August.

For the first 30 days, all cadets wore masks in class. They were allowed to discontinue using them after that period because they have been in a communal environment the entire time. No cadets or staff have tested positive for the virus.

All cadets wear masks when they leave the campus or if outside people are brought in for instruction.

“We are restricting to only absolutely necessary medical trips,” Haerr said. “We’ve communicated to the parents we won’t be doing the Saturday and Sunday passes any more. We’ve set up Zoom conferences.”

Haerr said unfortunately some cadets who have lost loved ones have been unable to attend funeral services. They have been able to attend services via Zoom.

Staff and cadets are screened daily, including temperature checks.

“I appreciate the staff taking care of themselves,” Haerr said. “None of this would be possible without the other 75 (staff) who are helping on a daily basis.”

Most of the staff go home at night and don’t stay in the bubble.

Graduation for the 22-week session is scheduled Dec. 12. It remains to be seen what form that will take. Unless the state is in Phase 5 of recovery, Haerr said, graduation will probably be either a drive-thru or small ceremonies at dropoff locations.

Haerr said cadets are coping well.

“I think they know what’s going on around them,” he said. “This has always been a very unique environment with being a residential cadet (facility) compared to a different high school or a traditional educational program. We’re not just focused on hygiene and health; we’re also focused on learning leadership, followership, being responsible citizens and life-coping skills.”