Dear AFS Families,
I hope that this summer has brought some true joy and refreshment to you, whether in time with family and friends, the outdoors, a good book or having a little extra time to do the things that you love most. For me, reading, music, long walks in the Wissahickon and time with family have been wonderful and truly restorative.
Summer camp has made our campus a very lively place over the past six weeks! It has been a delight to see children reveling in the playfulness and well-rounded experience of camp with our stellar camp staff and Rusty Regalbuto as an iconic, spirited captain. The bounty and community engagement of the new AFS Farm have also been inspiring to see. And it’s been wonderful to welcome Brendon Jobs and Mal Goss to their respective roles as Upper School Director and Director of College Counseling as well as Brian Harrity to his new role as Facilities Director. I look forward to welcoming all new faculty and staff and introducing them to the community later in August.
And of course, the Pandemic Team has been meeting this summer and adapting plans to shifting conditions, trends and guidance for schools. The AFS Pandemic Team consists of our three division directors, school nurse, director of business and operations, director of communications, chief information officer, facilities director, assistant head of school for advancement and me as head of school. The group has been meeting at least weekly for the past 18 months, conferring with regional and national public health associations, the CDC, WHO and the CHOP PolicyLab. As a community, we have accomplished so much during the pandemic, including a past year with zero incidences of in-school transmission. We enter the new year appreciative of the network of expertise that has guided us so well and grateful for the collective commitment of our entire community to each other during challenging times.
Now at the start of August, having developed plans throughout the summer, here are three core elements that are guiding the fine-tuning of our plans for the opening of school in several weeks:
- First, the rise of the Delta variant is a concerning setback in what had been a very encouraging late spring and early summer. With high rates of vaccination in Montgomery County, the positivity rate fell to 0.47% in July and the 7-day incident rate per 100,000 was in the single digits, making community transmission officially “low” for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. These conditions allowed for most weeks of camp to be free of masks as recommended for camps by the Montgomery County public health guidance. The rise of the more contagious Delta variant in several parts of the country is now becoming cause for concern in our region. The positivity rate is now at 4.2% and the seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 is at 55.7, elevating community transmission to the “substantial” phase. These numbers are quite low compared to conditions during the last school year, but the recent rise is concerning along with the higher rate of contagion of this variant. It is to be hoped that the high rate of vaccination in our region (94.6% of people over age 12 have had at least one dose of the vaccine in Montgomery County) will keep the spread of this variant from accelerating in the way it has in other parts of the country.
- Second, vaccinations have proven to be very effective at preventing infection and even more so at preventing serious illness, even against the Delta variant. Breakthrough infections are possible for vaccinated individuals but are still characterized as extremely rare, particularly in communities with high rates of vaccination. More concerning is the recent news that vaccinated individuals who become infected can infect others. That is still considered a rare phenomenon, but poses new risks for unvaccinated people even in the presence of those who are vaccinated.Because vaccination is so effective at keeping individuals and communities safe, we believe it is essential that all medically eligible members of our community – faculty and staff, children and family members – be vaccinated to protect themselves and others, particularly given that younger children in our community cannot yet be vaccinated. Among AFS faculty and staff, we have close to a 100% vaccination rate with rare cases of medical exemption. We are collecting proof of Covid-19 vaccinations for eligible students, along with other health forms in the Magnus Health section of the AFS Family Portal—these materials are due by August 9. We are considering the efficacy of requiring vaccines within the community, but at this point we are strongly encouraging vaccines and collecting the data to assist in our decision making. This, along with other health and safety protocols, which I will note below, will make it possible for us to create a substantially safe environment for learning on campus this fall.
- Lastly, the CDC, CHOP PolicyLab, the American Academy of Pediatrics and our local public health officials, all strongly agree that in-person learning for children is essential and can and must be safely achieved this year. As educators, we know that students thrive in relationships with each other and with us and in the very rich range of experiences we create every day on campus. With a high level of vaccination among faculty, staff, parents and older children, we can do so responsibly and will prevent transmission through the multi-layered methods and protocols proven successful in the last school year. With our excellent track record of health and safety during the pandemic, we will not be offering a separate virtual or hybrid option this school year. We believe we can offer the best possible experience for all students by focusing on the fullest version of our on-campus program. Our school will continue to monitor the guidance of a wide range of professional resources and to partner with Montgomery County as their guidance and collaboration served us so well in preventing in-school transmission last year. If conditions warrant periodic virtual instruction for all or some students, we are prepared to pivot seamlessly as we did last year.
Here is an outline of the general protocols we will be following at the start of the year:
- Our plan, as recommended by the CDC and Montgomery County Health Department, is to begin the year with all people on campus masked indoors to safeguard against transmission of the Delta variant. Current guidance indicates that it is safe in most conditions for all individuals to be unmasked outdoors; masks are always an option for anyone who so chooses.
- In addition, we will continue to observe at least 3 feet of distancing wherever possible, employ the excellent ventilation systems that were installed and/or improved last year, limit nonessential visitors to campus, encourage hand-washing and respiratory etiquette throughout the day and follow a regular cleaning regimen throughout the campus.
- We will also reinstitute daily health screenings sent via text. To ensure that your family receives required daily health screenings for students and other important school announcements, parent/guardian cell phone numbers must be entered and updated on the family portal. Instructions on, and a link, to the portal can be found here.
- Our lunch program and use of the cafeteria and campus for lunch and snack times are designed for safety. We will make full use of our vast outdoor resources for learning opportunities throughout the fall.
- The pandemic team has reviewed back-to-school and fall events. We plan to assess any large gatherings and modify or limit them as needed based upon guidance from the Montgomery County Office of Public Health and the level of community transmission at the time as outlined in recent recommendations.
- Protocols for fall athletics and divisional specifics will be shared over the next few weeks.
I will be sharing more school news and things to be excited about in the coming year in my traditional August letter later this month. In the meantime, I wish you all a wonderful last few weeks of summer. I so look forward to seeing our community joyfully reunited in September for this, our 325th year as a Friends school.
All the best,
Rich Nourie for the Pandemic Team:
Andrea Emmons, Lower School Director
Matt Eskin, Middle School Director
Susan Harris, School Nurse
Brian Harrity, Facilities Director
Bonita Huggins, Director of Communications
Brendon Jobs, Upper School Director
Rich Nourie, Head of School
John Rison, Chief Technology Officer
Martha Scache, Director of Business & Operations
Devin Schlickmann, Director of Admission & Assistant Head of School for Institutional Advancement