Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy back in session

J.P. Plutt
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy cadets are back on the University of Montana Western campus following the implementation of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s order to transition to Phase 2 of the COVID-19 response. MYCA Director Trent Gibson received the go ahead on May 22 and he immediately tasked his crew to begin calling Class 42 cadets to see if they were interested in returning to complete their work and graduate on June 27.

“These kids are going to get an opportunity to finish and we made it clear with them and their families that they need to make an informed decision on the risk and what is best for you and your family,” explained Gibson of the outreach.

Gibson said that when he addressed the cadets before they left Dillon following the suspension of the program, he made a commitment to them that the program would do everything it could to provide the class a path to graduation.

As of Monday, 72 of the original 119 members of Class 42 took Gibson up on his promise and have returned to Dillon to complete the program. Another 25 members of the class have committed to come back for the full program. Of the other 22 cadets, some couldn’t be reached and some opted not to return.

“There is a lot riding on this. For some of these kids, they need to get this done and get into the military and ship, and they couldn’t ship without getting this completed,” explained Gibson. “Some of these kids needed to complete the program to get their high school diploma.”

The MYCA staff is happy to be back to their normal routine, according to Gibson.

“We’re just happy to have them back. It has been a weird six weeks,” said Gibson. “We kind of went through a little bit of staff depression to be honest. Everybody knows what is at stake with these kids and we’ve put so much time and effort into them and to have to watch them go away and know that some of them aren’t going to come back, and knowing where some of them are going to, was a hard thing to handle as a staff.”

“So a lot of happy people around here.”

The unhappy state came about with the suspension of the program on March 29.

“That was a tough decision for everybody,” recalled Gibson. “There was just so much more unknown then. I think we all wanted to stay open, but we all had the ‘what if.’”

Gibson explained that the kids were contained on campus, but the staff went home at the end of shift.

“So it was a real concern of, what if Trent Gibson brings this in and spreads it to all of the kids.”

With the reactivation of the program, Gibson is armed with the knowledge that of the 41 Youth ChalleNGe programs in the country, 10 stayed open through the initial pandemic restrictions and not a single positive COVID-19 test resulted.

When the opportunity opened up with the announcement of Phase 2 restrictions, the Dillon program was ready with a plan and presented it to and were approved by Beaverhead County Health Director Sue Hansen, the Montana DPHHS office, UMW Chancellor Dr. Beth Weatherby and her staff, Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Clay Christians and his staff, and the Montana and U.S. National Guard hierarchy.

“For this class, we’re going to be staying in the mentality that we’re still in Phase I and be extra cautious,” said Gibson.

The plan includes taking cadet temperatures twice a day following an initial COVID-19 nasal swab test upon their arrival. Anytime a cadet shows any symptoms, they will again be tested with the nasal swab. Through the first 14 days, quarantine protocols will be followed with masks and social distancing.

Classroom size has been reduced from 30 students to 15 students to maintain protocols. Dorm rooms have been rearranged to accommodate protocols, and throughout the day, the cadets will be busy sanitizing desks, door handles and other areas of concern.

At the cafeteria, each cadet will have their own table with distancing requirements mandated by the program. Cadets will help the UMW staff with sanitation efforts after a meal.

“We are the first big campus thing in Montana going on right now,” said Gibson. “I think that led to a lot of precaution, and rightfully so.”