School Reopening Criteria Announcement

Dear AF New York Team & Family,

We hope this note finds you, your families, and your scholars safe and well! 

We are reaching out to share an update on our thinking around reopening schools in New York and particularly to share the criteria we will use to make reopening decisions in our New York region.  Two principles have guided all of our reopening decisions this year: 1) safety and 2) meeting the needs of our scholars and families. The safety of our scholars, staff, and families remains the #1 factor in our reopening decisions. This has not – and will not – change.
 

In the interest of transparency and clarity for our entire community, we are sharing the high-level headlines up top and then more detailed answers to the most common questions we are getting below. To watch our video explaining this, click HERE:

  • Over the last few weeks, we have engaged with a number of public health experts to evaluate our safety procedures for hybrid learning and to seek their guidance as we determine the safest way to reopen schools in each of our communities. Based on our research and discussions with public health authorities, a theme has emerged: when community spread (the degree to which COVID-19 is spreading within a community)  is low to moderate, schools that reopen with layered safety protocols (e.g., mask-wearing, social distancing, small/stable cohorts, symptoms-checking, frequent hand-sanitizing, etc.) ARE able to mitigate risk and minimize (and in some cases avoid) spread of the virus in schools. When community spread is high, however, it becomes much more challenging and much more disruptive when staff/scholars need to quarantine (due to cases/exposure that are unrelated to the school setting). 
  • With this in mind, we now believe we can set clear benchmarks for when we believe it is safe to reopen schools.  Based on the advice of public health experts, we have decided that we will reopen our schools for hybrid learning if the case positivity rate in our communities is less than 5% (case positivity rate is a public health metric that calculates the percentage of total COVID tests administered which return a positive result). We will calculate this by taking the weighted average of the case positivity rates in the ZIP codes where our schools are located so that we accurately represent the positivity rate in the communities our scholars and schools are located in. We are tracking the data in our region via this spreadsheet and will make a region-wide decision given that both our scholars and our staff travel across ZIP codes.   As of Feb 3, the current positivity rate is 7.21%. If the case positivity rate falls below 5% by February 22, we will reopen our schools on March 9. If, however, the positivity rate remains above 5% on Feb 22, our schools will remain in remote learning.  If it is clear next week (before Feb break) that there is very little chance we will hit the 5% threshold on Feb 22, we may make the decision early; if it’s a close call, we will wait to get more information.
  • We also want to provide an update re: COVID-19 testing.  Given the primary importance we are placing on safety, we have decided to offer regular COVID testing to provide an additional safety safeguard and additional reassurance to our community.  In New York, this will mean that before returning to the building for in-person training, we will provide testing for all staff members so that you can operate with the knowledge that all in-person staff members  tested negative recently. In addition, once we have returned to school, we will conduct regular bi-weekly testing of 15% of all in-person staff AND scholars to monitor the spread of COVID within our schools. We have heard from many of you that regular COVID testing is an important and reassuring additional safety measure to keep our scholars and staff safe. 

See below for answers to some more detailed FAQs. We share all of this with the goal of giving you transparent insight into how we are approaching these challenging decisions. We know that each of you has different thoughts, reactions, and emotions surrounding reopening and we want to honor those. This is an incredibly complicated and challenging situation. And, we know that there are a number of racial dynamics at play (e.g., disparate impact of COVID illness and COVID school closure along racial lines, varying levels of comfort with vaccinations across racial lines, varying levels of concern about COVID based on personal/family experience). As the people tasked with making these difficult decisions, we are doing our best to honor the data and the science, listen to the multiple perspectives of our staff and families, understand the human impact of all of it, and use our values to guide our decision making.

Thank you SO much for your partnership as we continue to navigate the challenges of this year together.

With love,
Dacia Toll (CEO), Richard Buery (President), and Stephanie Keenoy (Superintendent)

Q: On what timeline are we making reopening decisions?
A: We commit to making a region-specific, final decision about our March reopening by Monday, February 22 based on the most current data about COVID spread in our communities.

Q: If we are not ready to reopen on March 9, when will we next try to reopen?
A: given the timing of Spring Break in NY, if we do not meet the reopening criteria by 2/22, we will push back our NY in-person start date to 4/19; if this happens, we will only have 1 chapter for the remainder of the year (4/19-6/25).

Q: Why did we not set specific criteria earlier in the year and only do so now? Will this criteria remain over time?
A: Throughout this year, we’ve wanted (and attempted) to set criteria for reopening to provide clarity and transparency to our entire team. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough information in the fall to determine what appropriate rates were for reopening given the low availability of data at that time (given that many fewer schools in fewer communities were open for learning, data was not readily available at that time.) Indeed, research is still underway on this topic which is why the criteria will likely change over time. On Friday, Dr. Ompad (an epidemiologist and public health expert at NYU) shared multiple times that the virus is changing and we are learning more about the virus. It would be inadvisable to use the same criteria now that we will use in June or September. As we learn more, our criteria will definitely change…and we will communicate that transparently to you.

Q: Why did we set 1 criteria for all school levels vs. separate criteria for elementary, middle, and high schools?
A: While some host districts have made different decisions by grade level, we heard from the medical experts we consulted that there is not strong enough evidence (for now, at least) to suggest significant differences in risk for ES/MS/HS. That is why we have adopted 1 set of criteria K-12 and grounded this standard conservatively to err on the side of safety.

Q: Do the decisions made by our host districts impact this decision?
A: We have set our own AF-specific reopening criteria which are NOT guided by our host districts / anyone else. We originally started this year believing that we would follow the lead of our host districts in making these complex decisions. However, as the year progressed, we were concerned about some of the decisions our host districts were making and opted instead to be more conservative and to remain remote, in almost all cases, for longer. At this point, none of our districts are offering the clarity of standard/criteria that we want – and many of you have rightly asked for. In order to make the best decisions, we have consulted with our states and public health experts to assert a standard that we feel is as “right” as possible in this complex situation. As with everything related to this pandemic, there will be circumstances in which we need to shift course and act accordingly – for example if there is a city or state-wide shut-down, we will transition to remote learning. We commit to being transparent about changes as they occur.

Q: Why are we using the weighted average of the ZIP codes our schools are in?
A: Our goal in setting criteria was to find the metric that is the best estimate of community spread for our scholars and staff. The truth is that our scholars and staff live across the borough in various ZIP codes, but we felt that taking a Brooklyn-wide or city-wide average of positivity rates is not the most accurate methodology because it would not account for the disproportionate impact of COVID on the communities we serve. That’s why we decided to take a weighted average of the ZIP codes where our schools are located as a proxy for the level of spread for our scholars and staff.

Q: Will we make a decision for all NY schools to reopen / remain remote or different decisions by campus?
A: While the data demonstrates that the level of spread is not even in the ZIP codes where our schools are located (e.g., ENY has much higher rates than Clinton Hill), we know that schools do draw from across the city. That’s why we will NOT open/close individual campuses but make a region-wide decision for all NY schools.

Q: The above are our reopening criteria…but what criteria will we use to determine whether we should switch to remote learning once we’re back in person?

A: Once we are back in school, the same criteria will be used to make decisions about transitioning to all remote learning for the region. Our assumption is that rates above 5% will put us back in the situation of constant classroom/school closures due to exposure or staffing and thus if rates rise above that level, we will return to remote learning. The reality, though, is that positivity rates can fluctuate slightly on a day-to-day basis. We are in further conversation with public health experts to determine what trends we should look for in evaluating decisions to return to remote learning (e.g., case rates above 5% for 7 days or something similar). We will share an update on our thinking on this front in the coming weeks.

Q: How will we track and monitor these rates to see how they are trending leading up to February 22?
A: We will monitor these rates regularly, update them in this tracker. In NY based on the most recent data, the positivity rate is 7.21%, 2.21% higher than our 5% threshold. Many have asked us what we think the probability is of us getting below the 5% threshold (the last time we were below that mark was in late 2020). The truth is…no one knows. All of us can offer a guess but those will just be guesses…there’s no way to know for sure.

Q: Are our buildings – especially our co-located buildings – ready to reopen?
A: Yes. Since the summer, our school operations teams have been working to ensure that our buildings meet our safety standards (spacing desks, checking that ventilation works, securing PPE and hand sanitizer stations, etc.) Additionally, DSOs have been meeting with the building councils at schools to determine how to safely operate more than one school in the same building. Our Regional Directors of Operations have signed off on building readiness for all of our campuses based on the safety thresholds we outlined earlier this school year.

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