When is it safe for Ann Arbor Public Schools to Return to School?

When Will It Be Safe for Reopen Ann Arbor Public Schools?

When will Ann Arbor Public Schools Reopen? We finally have a date! Schools will begin the process on March 25.


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Current Status

On February 24, the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education approved a return to school plan that beings on Thursday, March 25. This is the culmination of a plan originally proposed in early January. Because of the slow roll out of vaccines to Washtenaw County teachers and school staff, it is later than the original goal of early March. Keeping the date does require the availability of vaccines for staff and for the rapid tests that have been approved for school use.

On January 8, Governor Whitmer announced a goal of having every district offer at least some in person learning by March 1. Additionally, K-12 teachers and schools staff were eligible for vaccination. On January 13, AAPS presented a plan to begin to ramp up in person learning for elementary starting in early March. In early February

Since that time, the vaccination rollout to teachers in Washtenaw County has been limited. At one point, Washtenaw County simultaneously had the highest case rate in the state and the lowest teacher vaccination rate. Based on this, the district was recommending remaining virtual until local teacher vaccine rates and local cases were more under control.

At the February 17th AAPS BOE meeting, Trustee Baskett proposed a shift in the return to learn plan. In a very chaotic meeting, the Board voted 5-2 to ask Dr Swift to recommend a revised return to learn plan that would prioritize return to learn for students with high impact needs. At the meeting, I heard some trustees say this would leave other students fully virtual for the remainder of the school year. However, in an email the Board sent to AAPS families on February 19, the Board stated this did not mean fully virtual for other students.

Finally, on February 23, the district announced that they have been working to acquire vaccinations and have setup a vaccination clinic with Washtenaw County Health Department and Michigan Medicine on Saturday, February 27 prioritizing K-2 staff and those working with high needs students.

The February 24th Board Meeting is being split in half with a noon meeting to discuss the Recommendation of the COVID-19 Extended Continuity of Learning Plan with the board taking action. The evening meeting will reconvene at 7p and will include Public Commentary, Second Briefings, and Board Action on bond spending and items from the board.

After the governor’s announcement, Superintendent Swift released her update after the first week of school this year. Highlights from this message include that the district is continuing with virtual learning for now and continues building preparations for a return to in person learning.

At the October 28th Board meeting, the AAPS Board of Education on the recommendation of AAPS voted to continue in a fully virtual mode.

On November 18, an MDHHS order went into effect restricting high schools to virtual learning.

Other local districts who were offering hybrid or in-person learning are rolling back their plans across all grade levels.

Return Plan

On February 24, the return plan was approved with dates.

On January 13, Superintendent Swift sent out an email to parents outlining the original return to school plan. The goal was to begin hybrid learning in early March and gradually ramp up to include more students. The plan was discussed that night at the Board Meeting.

The plan was made under the assumption that teacher’s would have imminent access to vaccinations. Unfortunately, Washtenaw County has lagged behind other counties in vaccinating teachers.

Dr Swift’s message, states that the “transition to in-school learning timelines are subject to adjustment, depending on the progress of the COVID vaccination process for school personnel, ongoing levels of school/district COVID infections and community spread and other emergent issues that could impact a healthy and safe return to in-school learning.”

Return is a hybrid model with students attending either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday. Students will join the class virtually when not in school. Families can opt to remain in full virtual learning.

Stage 1 – March 25

  • PreK, Young 5, and Kindergarten
  • High Level Special Needs – Students in self-contained classrooms across all grades
  • Small Groups of middle and high school students with high level of needs

Note: Return is on a Thursday with each cohort returning for one day before spring break.

Stage 2 – April 5

  • First Grade
  • Second Grade

Stage 3 – April 12

  • Third Grade
  • Fourth Grade
  • Fifth Grade

Stage 4- Phases starting April 12

  • Middle & High School
  • Phases will be impacted by PSAT testing the week of April 12

Metrics

With the revised CDC guidelines released on February 12 and the availability of vaccines, the district has moved away from their past metrics. Instead they are using the CDC guidelines of cases in a 7 day period per 100K people and percentage of positive tests.

As of February 24, Washtenaw County is considered high risk of transmission due to case levels despite low testing levels. At this level, elementary schools can be in hybrid or reduced capacity. Middle and High Schools should remain virtual with some exceptions.

I am leaving the original comments below with the last sentence in bold which highlights the prediction in October 28 that metrics could be increased .with better testing (availability of rapid testing in schools) and vaccine (now available for teachers and staff)

Since the metrics were first introduced at a planning meeting on September 11 and the board meeting on September 16, they were finalized. The original draft metrics set a strict limit. The adopted metrics include a higher level that they will consider re-opening. This allows for more flexibility to hit only some of the goals if others are close. At the October 28 Board Meeting, it was discussed that these numbers may adjust higher as we move from a novel pandemic to an endemic stage. With better testing (accuracy and speed of return), a vaccine, and increased contact tracing, exponential growth can be better managed.


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Where we Have Been

Original Key Metrics

The district is focusing primarily on 4 key quantifiable metrics. Each will be looked at predominately on a county basis, but will also look at the greater region and state totals:

  • Trend of New Daily Cases – Looking at this week to week and total number – They are looking for a decrease or a flat trend at a low number
  • New Cases per Million* – Low risk is <7 cases, but Washtenaw County has never been at this level since the first reported cases and it is probably unattainable. Medium Risk is 7-20 cases and the goal for resuming class.
    • Aim: <20 cases per million
    • Consider: 20-40 cases per million
  • New Cases per 100,000* – Medium risk is 1-10 daily new cases.
    • Aim: <5 cases/100K to be more consistent with the cases per million
    • Consider: 6-9 cases/100K
  • Positivity Rate of Diagnostic Tests – Harvard Global Health recommends <3% which is the same as MI Safe Start. As a note, NY is using <1% as their metric.

In addition, the district is looking more qualitatively at the reported cases in the county among students in PreK-12 and individuals age 0-18. They are also starting to look at hospitalizations as recommended in public commentary. They did point out that hospitalizations tend to lag other indicators.

Note: New Cases per Million and New Cases per 100,000 are reported by different groups and are not off by just a factor of 10. The Cases per Million are reported by MI Safe Start and uses onset of symptoms to assign dates. The Cases per 100K are reported by the Harvard Global Health Initiative and are based on test date. One uses just lab confirmed cases and the other also includes probable cases. It was not clear which metric uses which term.

November 11 Report

At the November 11 board meeting, the report is that COVID numbers continue to get worse throughout Washtenaw County and Michigan. I did not pull the charts, but cases are on the rise, percentage of positive tests are on the rise, hospitalizations are up, test turn around time is up, contact tracing is reaching capacity, etc.

October 23

The district shares the following graph on their COVID Metrics Dashboard.

October 9

As recently as October 9 we were approaching the top of the consider range. The New Cases per 100K were just barely under the limit however the new cases per million were still 20% over the limit.

September 16 Data

The September 16 data and chart were released before the consider range was included. However, looking at the data now we were at the top of the consider range. Unfortunately, since that time, cases have continued to grow.


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Timing

The district’s plan was originally to evaluate the data at the end of each month and make a decision with the board of whether it was safe to return to school. In discussion, they have moved towards setting a policy that the board will approve and evaluate the data on a rolling basis. Once the metrics are met, they will monitor the data for 14 days to ensure that conditions remain the same or improve. When the metrics are satisfied, the board will notify the board and parents. During this two week time, they will begin the ramp up to return to school. This includes reconfirming parent’s choice on return to buildings, creating cohorts, and other final preparations for in-person learning. At the end of the two weeks, they will set a return to school date.

Return Process

Return will be phased in 3 stages starting with young elementary (Young 5-2nd) and those for whom virtual learning presents a significant challenge (special education with high impact, English Language Learners, and those with additional needs). Stage 2 will be grades 3-5 and stage 3 will be secondary students beginning with middle school. Each stage will last about 3 weeks before moving to the next phase.

Return to School will be in the hybrid model with students returning 2 days a week or remaining home. If space allows some high risk students may return 4 days a week. When students are at home, they will be connected to the in person class and teacher via Zoom meetings.

Building Preparations

A major part of returning to school is ensuring the buildings are prepared. This includes attention to air handling, spacing, layout modifications, touch surfaces, signage, and more. Building preparations were covered in the Board Study Session on October 21.

Since school closed in March AAPS has been making some of these needed changes. Changes were prioritized to facilities for high school sports which have been in use since summer, then proceeding through buildings by grade level according to the phased reopening plan.

The good news is that some of these permanent changes will help with all disease transmission even when COVID-19 is no longer a major threat.


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Air Quality

COVID-19 is largely an airborne disease. The majority of the buildings in AAPS are old with old HVAC systems. The district has been working with a contractor to help adjust these systems. With the extended closure since March they have had more time than a typical summer to do more extensive maintenance. They are working to increase filtration. They showed a study of how increasing the MERV value of a filter can reduce spread of the flu from 32% to around 12%. The maximum MERV level is dependent on the air handling systems and how much air they can pull through a denser filter.

Effect of Improving Air Filtration Level on rates of flu spread

They are also increasing the percentage of outside air to help reduce the quantity of the virus. Using increased outside air is a trade-off for cleaner air vs increased energy consumption in winter months and even the ability to maintain temperature in rooms..

The goal is to turnover the air in a room 4-5 times an hour. This is difficult to achieve in some classrooms based on layouts and configuration. The district is investigating adding room air purifiers to help with air turnover particularly in the difficult to ventilate classrooms. As of October 28, they are prototyping a few units and investigating supply chain procurement issues before proposing a purchase to the board.

Water Quality

Water quality includes several different issues – bacteria growth in the water plus water fountains and bathrooms being transmission sources.

Extended building closures can cause growth of e coli and legionella bacteria. Throughout the closures, AAPS has been diligent about flushing systems to prevent the growth of bacteria. They have also completed their semi-annual filter replacement program.

They have removed the bubblers from water fountains and are adding touchless bottle filling stations.

Bathrooms are being converted to touchless operation. Touchless sinks and toilets. They are also removing air blowers and switching to paper towels. The air blowers can blow germs around and are no longer recommended in restrooms. This process may take more than a year to reach all bathrooms and buildings.


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Classroom Layouts

The district is working with a consultant to design classroom layouts. Unfortunately, we don’t have standard classrooms in the district. They vary in size and shape and air handling which affect the optimal layout for each room.

AAPS ClassRoom Configuration Example

Signage, Flow, & Barriers

AAPS is working to redesign building flow. They are converting hallways, doors, and stairs to one way flow in many cases – especially when you cannot keep 6′ of spacing between people moving in opposite directions. They have new plexiglass barriers for offices, cafeteria, and other locations. They are installing social distance reminders in hallways, new signage for new traffic flow, and hand washing reminders.

Sample Social Distance Signage for AAPS Return to School

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Supplies for Returning to the Building

When in person learning resumes, the district will need to have adequate supplies.

PPE & Related Supplies

The Board has already purchased PPE that is estimated to last about 2 months at full capacity. They are working to make sure they have a supply chain that they will be able to restock when needed. (Personal note, I know my husband has had trouble purchasing gloves for his laboratory).

They are also investigating what is required for disposal of items. When working with probable or known cases, PPE needs to be disposed of as medical waste. They are working to extend their sharps disposal to cover that.

School Supplies

School supplies were purchased and distributed for families to use at home already. A second purchase is being made to restock classrooms as they do every year. The district does not expect the supplies sent home to return.

Winter Preparedness

On October 14, a first briefing was presented for purchase of road salt and for a snow removal contract. These funds were approved at the October 28 board meeting. These purchase are needed to make the buildings safe when students return. Although some winter maintenance will also be done if buildings are closed.


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Sports

As part of the MDHHS order starting November 18, sports are restricted. All organized HS sports have stopped. Any team activity through December 8 must be virtual.

Fall Sports

Fall sports operated on a delayed schedule and are wrapping up their tournaments now. Throughout the state (and some of our teams) did miss games due to the need to quarantine after an associated case. Fall sports were mostly outdoor sports.

Winter Sports

As part of the MDHHS order starting November 18, sports are restricted. All organized HS sports have stopped. Any team activity through December 8 must be virtual.

At the October 28th meeting, Dr Swift shared that MHSAA has authorized winter sports to begin the first week of November. She said AAPS would be releasing a press release on October 29 asking MHSAA to delay the start of winter sports perhaps until after the winter holidays in the light of current infection rates throughout the state especially as winter sports are all indoors and several involve close physical contact.

At this time, AAPS has placed winter sports on a holding pattern. No activities or practices may begin until further notice. If MHSAA does not delay, Dr Swift and the Board will discuss further. My general consensus is Dr Swift will not be supporting winter sports and several board members agreed.

At the November 11th Board meeting, Dr Swift confirmed that winter sports are in a holding pattern. They are planning to start with virtual workouts soon. But postpone full practice and competition until January.


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Detailed Notes:

Check out our detailed notes from recent AAPS BOE Meetings

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