August 5, 2021
Dear BKW families,
I am sure you have been anxious to know about plans for the coming school year. In short, we anticipate the beginning of the school year to look much like the close of the last school year in terms of daily operations. We intend to return all students to in-person instruction this September, and do it in the safest manner possible for students, staff, and families.
Although we have been working with general guidelines to get ready for the opening of school, we have been waiting on specific guidance from the NYS Department of Health and NYS Education Department. So far, we have not received that guidance. We did, however, receive communication from the local health department, as they have been working with their local colleagues across the region to reinforce the importance of recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). Below is a link to the letter we received and it includes links to the CDC and AAP documents for your review.
In the absence of NYS guidance, it is wise to frame our plans around these school opening principles and strategies. The goal of both organizations, our local health department, and our school district is to have all students in school for in person instruction and maintain a safe and healthy learning environment.
In summary, the CDC acknowledges that schools will have a mixed population of both people who are fully vaccinated and people who are not fully vaccinated. Elementary schools serve children who are under age 12, and are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine at this time. Secondary schools may also have students who are not vaccinated. Although vaccination is a primary preventative measure against COVID-19, these variations within school populations require thoughtful planning about the use of layers of strategies to ensure a safe learning environment in schools.
Further, the CDC suggests school officials should work with local public health officials to consider multiple factors when they make decisions about implementing layered prevention strategies. Since schools typically serve surrounding communities, decisions should be based on the school population, families, and students served, as well as the community. The primary factors should include:
- Level of community transmission of COVID-19
- Vaccination coverage in the community – teachers, students, staff
- Use of screening testing
- COVID-19 outbreaks
- Ages of children served and associated social and behavioral factors that may affect risk of transmission and feasibility of different prevention strategies
Given these circumstances, the CDC recommends masking and physical distancing as key prevention strategies. However, they also suggest that if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school, based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely for any increases in COVID-19 cases. The CDC also recommends schools communicate any changes in plans to teachers, staff and families through their regular communications channels.
The AAP points out that as the next school year begins, there needs to be continued focus on keeping students safe, since not all students are vaccinated. They recognize that since the beginning of the pandemic, new information has emerged to guide safe in-person learning. The AAP also points out that remote learning highlighted inequities in education, was detrimental to the academic and social/emotional development of students of all ages, and exacerbated the mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Further, the AAP states, “The opening of schools can be safe and generally does not contribute to community transmission when explicit guidelines are followed.” It is important to acknowledge the possible transmission among those who are unvaccinated, as the Delta variant is more contagious than last year’s initial strain of COVID-19. Any school opening plan should take this into consideration. Therefore, the AAP believes at this point in the pandemic, given what we know about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention strategies are used together with the availability of vaccines, the benefits of in-person instruction far outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances.
In short, everything possible must be done to keep students in school, in person. The AAP suggests all school policies should consider several key principles in developing a plan, and should keep in mind that COVID-19 prevention strategies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate risk. Key strategies include, but are not limited to:
- Encouraging vaccination for those who are eligible
- Social distancing
- Health screening
- Contact tracing and quarantining
- Cleaning and disinfection
- Providing support for students and families
- Avoiding exclusion of students due to limits on mitigation strategies
In reviewing the guidelines set forth here and supported by the local health department, I am taken back to last year. During the 2020-21 school year, we monitored the local situation on a daily basis. We opened school to full-time, in-person instruction at the start of September, and remained open throughout the year. The district experienced 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases among roughly 722 people attending each day over 180 school days. This amounted to a .02% infection rate. The good news is the in-school transmission rate was 0%. All confirmed cases were acquired outside of school and there was no transmission to other individuals within school. This was due to the effective use of a layered mitigation plan that included many of the elements described above.
In the coming days, we will establish our formal reopening plan for 2021-22 and share it with you. The plan will include the elements we used last year including masking, social distancing, health screening, plastic barriers on desk tops, cleaning and disinfection, contact tracing and quarantining in the event of positive cases. We will also continually monitor the local infection rate and transmission rate and adjust our strategies accordingly.
Please stay tuned for more information as we move to make our final opening plans. We greatly appreciate your patience and understanding as we all continue to navigate unprecedented and complex times.
Dr. Timothy Mundell, BKW Superintendent of Schools