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Important Updates to Protocol as School Reopens

Dear AFS Families:

We look forward to welcoming students back to school next week following what we hope was a restful, restorative winter break for all. On Tuesday, we met as a Pandemic Team in response to the surge in Covid-19 cases and we want to brief you as we prepare to gather as a community next week.

The Pandemic Team has been monitoring the surge in the Omicron variant cases in our region, noting with concern that this variant is significantly more contagious than previous variants. We are somewhat assured by the data so far that indicates milder cases of the disease from Omicron, especially for those who are vaccinated, but have been reviewing news and guidance carefully to ensure best practices for the safest return to campus next week.

We have been in close communication with the Montgomery County Department of Public Health (MCOPH), whose guidance we follow carefully. To date, they have done an excellent job of creating pandemic guidelines that adapt wide expertise to our region and the setting of schools. Their main guidelines for prevention of Covid during times of high transmission remain in place and applicable for the Omicron variant. We note that as of Tuesday, December 28, MCOPH adopted updated isolation and quarantine requirements based on guidance from the CDC. This updated school exclusion chart shows the reduction in time spent in isolation and quarantine for vaccinated and unvaccinated students, faculty and staff. Masking, ventilation, daily symptom checking, distancing, disinfecting and contact tracing remain in place at AFS and all have been reviewed during the break, with special attention to our ventilation systems.

We are making an important change to our masking policy based on the contagion of Omicron and the critical role that masks play in preventing transmission. We are hearing from public health officials that cloth masks are not adequate protection against the new variant and that disposable four-ply, well-fitted surgical masks, which are readily available and inexpensive, should be the minimum standard going forward. KN95 masks and N95 masks provide even more protection and can be considered as options by families (please see resources on masking below). We will have surgical masks available for students this coming week for those who have not yet replaced their cloth masks. Cloth masks should no longer be used at school, unless they are used over a surgical mask.  

At school, we will be emphasizing and closely monitoring our already in-place practices and protocols, including those for athletics and performing arts. We will be limiting large gatherings within the school, including spectators at athletic events during this surge. More information about attendance at games will come at the start of next week. There will be division-specific modifications made to assemblies and gatherings that division directors will share in a family communication next week.

Here are some important things families can do to ensure that school is as safe and fully open as possible:

First, if your child is not yet vaccinated, we continue to support vaccination as the best protection for individuals who are medically-eligible and for the community. We are grateful for the high percentage of eligible students who are currently vaccinated. Additionally, for those who are eligible, but have not yet received a booster shot, we highly recommend this as an extra level of protection.

Second, without adding undue anxiety and tailored to your particular child, reinforce the need for masking, hand-washing and following protocols at school particularly for Middle and Upper School students. While we have been very successful in preventing in-school transmission to date, we need to guard against complacency.

Third, our collective behavior in the days before a return to school will make a real difference in the health of the community overall as we come back together. At this time of high transmission, please avoid unmasked indoor inter-household socializing for the remainder of the break, wear masks when out in public and avoid large indoor gatherings. Our community has done over the past year and a half; and at this time late year, we had no positive tests as we came back together in January. Let’s keep our commitments to each other strong in this winter season.

We also want to remind you that students and staff should stay at home if they are not feeling well or have symptoms that prompt a stay at home directive from RUVNA. The completion of daily RUVNA health screenings is very important—do not simply go through the motions—take temperatures each morning and be attuned to and accurately report any symptoms.

Any student who has been exposed to or contracted Covid-19 over winter break should follow the guidance of a medical professional or local health official as to when a return to campus is permitted. Please inform Nurse Susan Harris of the student’s status before their return to school.

Finally, we have developed with CHOP a program for in-house rapid testing and have implemented required weekly testing for unvaccinated winter athletes. Because of the surge, testing resources are limited at this time in our county; we are hopeful for greater availability in the near future.

We are grateful for our collective success as a community in keeping school as safe and open as possible. We can anticipate that there will be cases of the Omicron variant in our community and that cases in any particular grade or division of the school could be disruptive for short periods of time if groups of students or teachers need to be home from school. We should ready ourselves to navigate unplanned disruptions with resilience and good will. Additional details from your division as to specific changes in protocol will be sent along next week. We are hopeful that this winter surge is something that will improve in the weeks to come and that the spring ahead will show much better conditions overall locally and in the wider community. Despite the need for ongoing precautions, we know that school will be a lively and rich experience for students at all grade levels as we come back together next week

With thanks to all for what we accomplish together,
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
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