COVID-19 Resiliency at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy
Observations from the Instructor's Desk
By Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Rich Adams & Retired Sgt. Maj. Jesus Gonzalez
Sergeants Major Academy
May 15, 2022
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The operational environment is complex and dynamic. As 2020 rolled in, the media focused on a novel coronavirus strain originating in the far-east. The COVID-19 virus tested our nation’s societal resilience and permanently changed our lives. For the students, staff and faculty of classes 70 and 71 of the Sergeants Major Course, resiliency played a key role in their successful navigation and completion of the course during the first pandemic in more than 100 years. According to the Department of the Army, “Resilience is the mental, physical, emotional and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover, learn and grow from setbacks” (pg. 6). The intended message herein – resiliency when facing adversity. Many of our Soldiers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) have undergone significant trials and tribulations. Sharing some of their stories could help others facing similar challenges. This article is a testament to the challenges these students faced and ultimately overcame because of the resiliency they developed throughout their careers as professional U.S. Army Soldiers.
Constant Change and Requirements Imposed
As the virus ravaged the world, the U.S. Army implemented measures to protect its employees, both civilians and Soldiers, on and off installations. In support of these efforts, the Sergeants Major Academy (SGM-A) transitioned to virtual classes to reduce person-to-person contact and mitigate the spread of the virus. Beginning the many challenges students of classes 70 and 71 would have to endure.
The challenges for Soldiers are significant when attending the SGM-A before adding the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Add to that the changes and restrictions imposed by the institution and the installation, and the challenges rapidly intensify. The academy went from in-classroom instruction to 100% virtual within a week. Despite the shock this was for faculty and students, everyone quickly learned how to navigate within the new venue for instruction, a learning management system (LMS) called Blackboard (Bb). Learning in a virtual environment is not ideal for everyone. Students and faculty both struggled as virtual classes began. Due to the short suspense, the SGM-A did not change the curriculum to suit a virtual environment, so the requirements remained unchanged. This became a significant challenge for students to endure.
Even though the virtual environment connects people through different platforms, it can also be a lonely place. You instantly become an individual in a virtual pool of many. The virtual learning environment can be a difficult place to be in and learning can be a struggle. Some students found themselves at home with their children and spouse all in some sort of virtual environment. Spouses worked online, children were in virtual classes and everyone at home was fighting for bandwidth. The little things we often take for granted, such as grocery shopping, can quickly become significantly more difficult in this environment. As the inevitable change occurred, SGM-A students became frustrated as the challenges intensified. Seated behind their desks, our instructors listened carefully.
Behind the Desk
As the days passed, students were expressing their daily experiences at home. In some cases, when cameras were on, family members could be seen in the background running across the room. Students found themselves more confined to their homes as higher commands issued further restrictions. The initial adjustment was not bad. However, as the days became weeks and time passed, the home environment became more difficult for most. Faculty constantly engaged the students with probing questions as to their well-being. Some students shared their difficulties of being in a quarantine environment. The stay-at-home order was difficult for many students as most were accustomed to an active lifestyle, with families leaving the house, especially those with small children. Some restrictions prohibited going to public places such as parks and restaurants. Parents became creative in entertaining at home, while at the same time, students struggled to adjust to class at home.
Some students found the new environment difficult to be in, especially those with children. Our Soldier students were constantly interrupted and found it hard to focus on schoolwork. Their struggles could easily be seen on camera. Some repeatedly apologized for interruptions. Dogs barked, and children cried; something was always interrupting the audio or video. As a result, learning was affected due to the isolation of the virtual environment. Attending class in a brick-and-mortar setting was clearly more conducive to SGM-A learning, where sharing information through face-to-face discussion is immediate. Gillis and Krull, in a 2020 study mention, “students experienced barriers to their learning due to the pandemic, including distractions, increased anxiety, and feeling less motivated…especially for first-generation college students” (para. 1). Some students in (virtual) conversation, would mention their struggles regarding isolation and feeling alone. The operational environment proved to be complex and dynamic.
It takes a lot of courage and will-power to be resilient while in student status at the SGM-A. “A resilient and fit individual is better able to leverage intellectual and emotional skills and behaviors that promote enhanced performance and optimize their long-term health” (Department of the Army, 2014, p. 6). As an Instructor at the SGM-A, I had a front row seat observing students daily that fit the definition of resiliency. Of the many students I observed, one stood out.
One day as we were closing out the day, I was providing feedback to a student on a written assessment. During this time, we were entirely virtual because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although we were constrained from meeting face-to-face, we had the privilege of seeing one another through Bb. As I was conducting the feedback session, I could hear the rumblings of children in the background. I asked the student if we needed to stop the session and continue later; the student stated it would be ok to continue. This student was a single parent with five children; the youngest was 2 years old. At the height of the pandemic, local schools and childcare providers were closed to stop the spread of the virus. This left a lot of Soldier students needing someone to care for their children while they attend the SGM-A during the day.
I was amazed that this student, having all the distractions at home, could possess and demonstrate the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to maintain a balance of everyday life at home while attending a rigorous course such as the sergeants major course. As stated earlier, many students demonstrated the attributes of resiliency, but none like the one mentioned here. The student went on to successfully graduate from the SGM-A. Students were just some with issues and concerns going into a 100% stay-at-home virtual environment. Instructors, too, had significant challenges; some call this the three-foot wall.
A Three-Foot Wall vs Instructors
Resilience was not only demonstrated by the students of the SGM-A during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also demonstrated by the instructors. While some instructors had a dedicated home office, others created office space in garages or spare bedrooms. Although the transition may have seemed seamless, every day presented a challenge. There would be days when internet connections were difficult to establish; in this case, the contingency plan was for the students to contact their instructors via cell phone. Instructors set battle drills to maintain open communication with students. I can only imagine how busy the institution’s IT department was during this fully virtual period. As mentioned above, instructors within the institution had the week of spring break 2020 to prepare for the transition. Prior to the institution transitioning to a virtual-only environment, many instructors did not use the LMS Bb to teach per se, not in the capacity we embarked on. Instructors worked with the in-house Bb administrator to reconfigure the platform. It included creating virtual classrooms, creating folders to drop curriculum products, creating slide presentations with instructions for students to access virtual rooms and retrieve products created in the Command Post of the Future (CPOF) Army Battle Command System (ABCS), which is used during several Department of Army Operations (DAO) blocks of instructions. A team was responsible for ensuring the IT department had everything ready to go before the students returned from spring break. After much collaboration and dialogue, DAO instructors revamped the Bb virtual platform, and were ready to conduct class within five days of notification. The professionalism and willingness of instructors to adapt to change in a constrained timeline enabled the students to easily transition from the traditional classroom to a full-out virtual one. After spring break, the students were able to meet in their respective environments. The transition was seamless.
The operational environment is ever-changing, complex and dynamic. As time passes and instructors sit behind their desks, student Soldiers will continue to offer their struggles and adapt to the environment. Student Soldiers will continue to be resilient and adhere to constant changes and how they manage their professional and personal lives. The struggles they face are real. It is important to listen to the stories our Soldiers want to tell in the pursuit of achieving their own resiliency. There is uncertainty in our future, but one thing is for sure, the student Soldier will survive and succeed.
Alanna Gillis & Laura M. Krull. (2020). COVID-19 remote learning transition in spring 2020: Class structures, student perceptions, and inequality in college courses. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0092055X20954263
Department of the Army. (2014). Comprehensive soldier and family fitness (AR 350-53). https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/r350_53.pdf
Retired Sgt. Maj. Jesus Gonzalez is an instructor for the Department of Army Operations, SGM-A, Fort Bliss, TX. His previous assignments include Department of Training Operations SGM, Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, TX; Instructor, Battle Staff Noncommissioned Officer Course, Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, TX. Mr. Gonzalez deployed to Desert Storm and OIF. He holds a Master of Education from Trident University.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Richard B. Adams. Jr is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Army Operations, SGM-A, Fort Bliss, Texas. His previous assignments include command sergeant major for 180th Transportation Battalion, Fort Cavazos (Fort Hood), TX and Department Head, Department of Amy Tactics, SGM-A (United States Army Sergeants Major Academy), Fort Bliss, TX. CSM (Ret) Adams deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom I and 05-7. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree with a concentration in Human Resource Management from Trident University International (TUI).
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