Why Did AJA’s Medical Committee Decide to Require Masks?
As last school year came to a close, AJA’s medical committee hoped to lift all COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming year. Rabbi Leubitz recounted, “The hope really was that vaccinations would have negated the need for masks, particularly in places like the High School, where everyone is eligible for the vaccine.”
However, over the summer, the plans changed. Rabbi Leubitz explained that the medical committee reevaluated the decision to relax protocols when “the Delta variant became more ubiquitous.” The signs of breakthroughs and rising COVID-19 cases led the medical team to ultimately decide that everyone in the school building must continue to wear masks.
They reached this conclusion by “following the CDC recommendation of masking indoors and in areas of higher transmission,” explained medical committee member Dr. Anna (Chanie) Steinberg. She said that the committee makes decisions based “upon the principles of community, safety, public health, and the best current scientific knowledge that we have.”
Dr. Steinberg noted that AJA’s policies are much more “stringent” than what Georgia recommends; Georgia does not mandate masks or vaccines. She also explained that AJA enforces more restrictions than most private schools in the Atlanta area.
This level of caution stems from trying to maintain “the utmost standard for safety and health,” Dr. Steinberg explained. The medical committee prioritizes this above all else. Dr. Steinberg stated, “We’re a community, and according to Jewish law you have to look out for your community.” During a pandemic, this requires implementing policies with the sole intention of maintaining safety. Rabbi Leubitz agreed, saying, “For me it’s not about politics; it’s not about comfort. It’s about what’s right for the people inside this building.”
The concept of doing “what’s right” is continuously evolving. Cases of COVID-19 in the Atlanta area fluctuate, and cases in the school itself rise and fall. As the data continues to change, the CDC and the state of Georgia change mandates and recommendations related to masks, vaccines, and sizes of gatherings. As a result, there is a constant “back and forth” between Rabbi Leubitz and the medical committee.
When conditions change, Rabbi Leubitz said that there is “dialogue and debate” as to how the school should respond. Protocols have changed, and they will continue to change. Dr. Steinberg emphasized, “They are not set in stone; they are very dynamic.” The school created an addendum to the AJA Playbook in order to document the ever-changing policies. While this includes a mask requirement as of now, Rabbi Leubitz hopes that soon the school can lift this restriction in the High School, as all the students are eligible to receive the vaccine. He stressed he hopes for this — it does not represent a concrete plan — and it definitely lies a ways “down the road.”
For now, masks remain. However, on its own, no strategy — including masking — can entirely prevent the spread of the COVID-19. “It’s like swiss cheese,” Rabbi Leubitz said, referencing an analogy made popular by Dr. Carter Mecher, medical advisor for the Public Health Company. Dr. Mecher explains that a slice of swiss cheese represents one strategy to contain a disease. Each contains a hole — a way COVID-19 can slip through and spread, despite the strategy in place.
However, implementing enough imperfect strategies eliminates any way for COVID thrive; the stack of swiss cheese is impenetrable, despite the hole in each slice. Rabbi Leubitz explained, “No matter what you do, it’s not perfect.” As a result, the school made use of many strategies, including restricting large gatherings, requiring vaccinations, and encouraging students to eat outdoors. Individually, masking is not “foolproof,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “It’s just one extra mitigation tool… and we should use every tool that we have.”