BKW adopts layered-mitigation opening plan for 2021-22 school year

HILLTOWNS — Berne-Knox-Westerlo students will be making a full in-person return to school on Sept. 8 and, in preparation, the district’s board of education adopted a layered-mitigation opening plan that will allow the school to adjust the severity its health and safety protocols according to updated, local COVID-19 data. 

Over the summer, the board of education was probing the BKW community to determine where parents stood on a variety of COVID-related issues, including whether they supported a mask-requirement policy. Earlier this month, Superintendent Timothy Mundell told The Enterprise that half of survey respondents were opposed to a mask mandate, preferring masks as an optional strategy.

However, on Aug. 27, the New York State Department of Health released pressure that was growing on school governments by issuing a statewide mandate on mask-wearing in schools, three days ahead of the BKW Board of Education’s final meeting before students return to campus for classes. 

At that meeting, the board briefly reviewed and unanimously adopted a layered-mitigation opening plan that accounts for the new mask mandate while allowing for flexibility with other COVID-related protocols. The plan assigns different levels of mitigation to four community-transmission levels as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: low, moderate, substantial, and high community transmission. 

When the state mask mandate is no longer in effect, BKW will not require students to wear masks when transmission is in the lowest tier — meaning there are between 0 and 10 new cases per 100,000 in seven days, or a positive test rate between 0 and 5 percent over seven days.

Data from the CDC is available at the county level. Albany County, since the four transmission levels were first defined by the CDC, has never been labeled “low”; it is currently labeled as having a “high” rate of community transmission.

When the transmission is low, there will also be no social-distancing requirements for the students, minimal restrictions on visitors to the school, and no surveillance testing for the virus. Athletes will be encouraged to keep three feet of distance between themselves, with masks encouraged in scenarios where that distance is untenable. 

When transmission is high — i.e. there are more than 100 new cases per 100,000 over seven days, or there’s a positive test rate above 10 percent — masks will be required regardless of whether there’s a statewide mandate, students and faculty will be required to maintain three feet of distance from one another, visitors will be subject to “strict restrictions” and limited to “official business only,” and there will be surveillance testing at 20 percent per week, the plan states. 

Athletes will have to maintain three feet of distance and be masked, plus there will be “potential rapid testing for unvaccinated students in High Risk Sports,” and only two home spectators will be allowed per athlete at events.

“At this point in time we are closely monitoring the County data,” Mundell told The Enterprise this week in an email. “The County is currently in a [high-transmission] Red zone. If school opened today, we would be in a red zone.”

Albany County provides the total number of positive cases in each of its ZIP codes, and those corresponding with the Hilltowns — except for Knox, which spans two ZIP codes, one of which is not listed while the other includes Altamont, where there is greater density — show a confirmed 446 cases since the start of data collection in March 2020. Some ZIP codes may include cases from other municipalities that exist in the same ZIP code, whether partially or fully.

“For the past two weeks, I have been following movement in the aggregate numbers of positive cases in East Berne, Berne, and Westerlo,” Mundell said. “The idea is to see any movement that might indicate patterns of increase or holding flat. The district does not have a database to follow the localized data like the County as a whole.”

“As a result of Friday's mask mandate,” Mundell went on, “any gap between County data and local or school data is irrelevant because masks are required to be worn in schools by staff, students, and any visitors or contractors until such time as the order is modified or rescinded.” 

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