As the Covid-19 pandemic persists, and students return to campuses across the United States, there has not been a significant decline in the number of students enrolled in pilot-degree programs, according to a survey of aviation educators. Nearly 90% of schools report “little or no change.”
Only one school reported more than 15% cancellations or degree changes. About one-quarter indicated a “melt” of 5-15% in students committed to attending (though up from 10% a month ago). One-third are seeing less than 5% change, and 26.47% indicated all enrolled students plan to attend.
Surprisingly, in the wake of the devastation in the airline industry, nearly 40% of the universities will have a higher number of students than started a year ago. Only 15% expect a lower number, and 36.4% are level with 2019.
Ken Byrnes, Chair of the Flight Training Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), who moderates the ad-hoc national group’s periodic Zoom discussions, cautioned, “As the airline industry slows, interest can start to wane,” but he reminded that the process of becoming an airline pilot “is a four- to five-year journey, and the industry is going to need a significant amount of pilots in the near future.”
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The group has been focused through the summer on sharing best practices for sanitizing classrooms, hangars, aircraft, simulators and people as the schools attempt to continue or resume courses.
Nine of 10 schools surveyed have reopened their flight operation, compared with 50% at the end of May. Another 8% never fully closed, and only one closed (for three days) due to a positive Covid case.
Across the US, as of 26 August, there were 26,000 Covid cases (and 64 deaths) reported on college campuses (according to a New York Times survey of more than 1,500 schools), many of those cases attributed to off-campus parties in which masks and social distancing were ignored. The three highest were University of Alabama at Birmingham (972 cases), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (835 cases), and the University of Central Florida (727 cases).
One aviation educator commented, “Students are more lax if there is no ‘authority’ in the vicinity.” CFIs are encouraged to help motivate students to follow health protocols.
"I cannot overemphasize that Covid-19 precautions are required at all times – on campus and off," stated Capt. Dave Powell, dean of Western Michigan University's College of Aviation, in a letter to students. "The disease does not clock out when you leave campus."
The aviation schools group reported only 15 positive cases across 13 organizations thus far, with a maximum of six cases at one school.
Four of five of the flight schools require students, faculty and staff to wear masks (including in an aircraft). Testing protocols are more diverse: Only 9% are testing all people in the department, 6% are randomly testing, 29% make testing available on a voluntary basis, and 26% do not currently plan to test. One school is testing dorm students weekly and non-dorm students randomly.
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One department head lamented that they were required to test all students who would be flying, at a cost of several thousand dollars. Then the school leadership changed, and testing was no longer required.
Since summer classes began in late June, ERAU has confirmed 25 cases (about 1% out of 2,349 tested) across their two residential populations in Florida and Arizona, all through off-campus transmission. In a 21 August statement, the university said, “There continues to be no evidence to date of any confirmed transmission of Covid-19 within the university itself.”
In the event of a positive case, some schools implement contact tracing of others who may have been exposed. Typically defined as someone who has been within six feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or more (mask or not). The positive person is quarantined and isolated, and workspaces, simulators and aircraft are disinfected. Some schools close the flight operation temporarily.
Quarantined students, in many cases, can continue classes through online learning.
In the classroom, according to Byrnes, capacity has been reduced with six feet between seats. Other measures to “de-densify” a campus include alternating physical attendance (Day One in person, Day Two online), spreading out the schedule from 6am to 8pm, and allowing more time between classes.
Middle Tennessee used a 400-square-foot tent it had planned to deploy at the (cancelled) EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as a place for instructors and students to do weight-and-balance instruction outdoors.
The University of North Dakota is in Level 2 mode of its “Healthy Hawks Restart” – a mix of in-person and remote learning. Moving to Level 3, “New Normal with Recommended Safety Precautions,” will require an FDA-approved vaccine. Reverting to Level 1, all remote, after Thanksgiving break will be determined on or before 1 October, should there be a resurgence of virus cases.
Most schools have also implemented online ground training, and in general the FAA was quickly accommodating to allow credits. “National must have put the word out to keep aviation moving,” said Gary Morrison, chair of the AABI (Aviation Accreditation Board International). “In 99% of the 141 schools, if the petition was done properly, they received approval from the FAA the first time.”
There were nonetheless examples of POI reluctance, such as for dispatch training. Many schools report that POIs are also spot-monitoring virtual courses, and want assurance that students are attending and learning (typically through quizzes).
Seeming to have solved the virus hygiene dilemma (aside from those who ignore the stated protocols), the university educator group may soon turn its attention to retention and recruitment campaigns.