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Putting COVID to the Test

The New AJA Testing Policy

Before winter break, on December 12, Head of School Rabbi Leubitz sent out an email with a plan to potentially soon lift the mask requirement at school. However, about two weeks after describing this plan to remove a COVID-19 precaution, Rabbi Leubitz sent an email detailing a plan to implement an additional one. In the midst of the rising positive cases, on December 31, Rabbi Leubitz wrote to AJA families: “During this surge, we will be conducting COVID-19 testing on campus, at no cost to families, faculty, or staff. We will only be testing students 1 – 12th Grade, and faculty and staff, irrespective of vaccination or booster status.” 

Rabbi Leubitz explained that testing could help “detect infections before they turn into outbreak clusters at school” and “REDUCE the number of days our students and staff will need to be out of the building, and… reduce the likelihood of having to go remote as we navigate through this surge.” 

The school teamed with MAKO Medical (MAKO) to test the school. On their website, MAKO says that they stand “ready to help school administrators with testing solutions and prevention strategies designed to protect students, teachers and staff while slowing the spread of COVID-19.” In addition to working with schools, MAKO partners with the Georgia Department of Health to hold testing sites throughout Georgia.

Rabbi Leubitz confirmed that the testing primarily aims to keep school running in person, not necessarily reduce infections.

While the school first conducted testing on Monday, January 10, they planned to complete testing on Wednesdays moving forward. On January 7, Rabbi Leubitz wrote to the AJA community saying, “Once we move testing to Wednesdays, those who test positive will be able to return to school on Monday morning, and would likely only miss our shorter Friday schedule.” 

In response to this email, many students and teachers felt the school was only implementing testing out of concern for appearances, not reducing the spread of the virus. For instance, after reading this email, science teacher Mrs. Catherine Brand said, “It seems to me like the testing is being done more to keep kids in school… as opposed to actual testing that’s meant to mitigate spread.” She and history teacher Dr. Corrie Stephenson referred to the system as “testing theater,” describing it as going through the motions of testing but without true concern for safety. Similarly, senior Yered Wittenberg stated, “It seems the school is only testing kids to look good to the public eye.” 

In an interview, Rabbi Leubitz confirmed that the testing primarily aims to keep school running in person, not necessarily reduce infections. He stated, “Managing COVID now is really more about keeping school open.” 

With the overall upsurge in positive cases, he feels that “a lot of kids are going to get COVID, no matter what. That’s just the way it is; it’s so contagious.” However, the administration realized that, due to Omicron’s infection rate, many teachers could likely contract the virus at once, forcing school closure. By testing weekly, the school hoped to catch positive cases before they spread throughout the entire staff. Yet even with the testing, Rabbi Leubitz stated that “there were moments in time where it got a little bit tight; where we were close with not enough teachers, but, by and large, I think we weathered the storm.” 

After the first round of testing, many teachers and students expressed frustration due to the length of time it took to receive results. While MAKO says they can process up to 150 thousand PCR tests a day and return results through email within 48 hours, they did not actually do so. The week after the first round of testing, Rabbi Leubitz mentioned that “several families did not receive their test results in a reasonable amount of time, and some did not receive results at all.” Rabbi Leubitz shared that the “problem was the testers were just not able to give us a turn-around time that we needed.” 

If students and faculty continue to come to school for days after testing, many believe that this makes the test results moot. For example, sophomore Tova Bregman said, “I like the fact that our school is trying to be cautious to help us stay in school, but I don’t know how beneficial it is because once someone gets a positive COVID test back they were now already hanging out with their friends for two to three days.”

On January 18, the day before the second round of testing, Rabbi Leubitz wrote: “Unfortunately we have just been notified by MAKO Testing that due to staff shortages they are not able to provide school wide testing for us tomorrow.” Taking the delayed results, lost tests, and last-minute cancellation into account, the school decided to switch from MAKO to Viral Solutions for testing.

Furthermore, in addition to switching testing providers, Rabbi Leubitz said that they were switching the testing date from Wednesdays to Fridays. Viral Solutions committed to returning test results by Sunday morning. 

The administration realized that, due to Omicron’s infection rate, many teachers could likely contract the virus at once, forcing school closure.

Some teachers appreciated the switch in testing dates. For instance, Dr. Stephensons said, “I actually like the scenario of testing on Friday better. I think that it’s far more likely to get people out of the building so it doesn’t spread any further.” She explained that receiving a positive test on Sundays would be much better for teachers than the middle of the week, “It becomes a lot easier to organize subs on a Sunday afternoon and get all your lesson plans together and get everything set up, instead of having to do it at 7:30 in the morning,” she said.

While some teachers expressed that they welcomed changing testing to Fridays, other teachers preferred the original system. Morah Ariella Livnat stated, “I don’t know if I like that it’s on Friday… we get the results on Sundays. I liked when we were on Wednesday, for example, because then we get the results on Friday so we don’t miss school — both students and teachers.”

However, some teachers do not approve of weekly testing at all. Morah Galia Magen said, “I don’t think it’s necessary. Because if you feel sick… stay home, get tested, do your best to keep everyone around you safe. But if you don’t feel anything, let everybody keep going with their lives.” 

Morah Tali Dan questioned the testing’s practicality, saying, “I don’t know how effective it is,” and Mr. Bill Feinberg explained that he feels testing each week is excessive. “I think it’s probably a little too much; maybe unnecessary. I think maybe once a month… because we’re already wearing masks; we’re already trying to keep safe. Once a month would be more reasonable,” he said. 

However, some teachers remain adamant in their support of weekly testing. Mrs. Brand said that she “firmly believe[s]” that the concept of weekly testing is “important because it’s the best way to stop outbreaks and spread.” Dr. Bobby Portis reiterated this, saying, “It’s going to take some getting used to, but it’s something that’s necessary for the school.” Mrs. Hana Hecht added, “I think it’s great… because some of us, including myself, are with people who cannot be vaccinated or they’re immunocompromised so the vaccine doesn’t help anyways. And because COVID is so dangerous for them, I’d rather not bring it home and kill them.” 

Just as teachers are divided on whether the school should test or not, students also take many different views on the new system. Some students find the testing unnecessary, but others support testing, such as sophomore Leora Frank, who said, “​​I think it’s good that we are taking extra precautions to ensure our safety.” Additionally, many students expressed appreciation that the school could organize testing in the building. 

Regardless of the many different views on the testing policy, after a few weeks of successful testing with Viral Solutions, the new system seems here to stay. COVID-19 remains a possible threat to health and school closure, and the administration has chosen to use testing as a means to protect the community.

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