The School’s Reasoning and Response to Unmasking
Masks. Social distancing. Vaccinations. These are all familiar words to the AJA community by now, and they have become ubiquitous in the past two years. So, when AJA decided to go mask-optional starting February 23, it was, naturally, a shock to many students and faculty, even if it was not unprecedented.
In other words, AJA families knew that the mask rule would end sometime, as AJA tried unsuccessfully to go mask-optional in January but had to backtrack due to high rates of COVID-19 in the school. However, it still felt strange, liberating, and, to some, dangerous, to actually be maskless in school.
Many people enjoyed this newfound freedom, saying how nice it was to “finally feel a sense of normalcy again,” as freshman Eliana Flusberg put it. Other anonymous sources felt that AJA was “jumping the gun,” so to speak, as AJA had only just gotten over its high infection rate that saw droves of teachers and students out sick, causing disruptions to classes and fueling fear of infection.
Another source of reluctance toward the unmasking policy was the release of the student and faculty vaccination rates at the school. Before this release, many students, such as sophomore Tova Bregman, assumed that a majority of the school was vaccinated and cited that assumed fact as a source of frustration towards being required to wear masks. “I didn’t like wearing a mask in the beginning of the school year because I was double vaccinated as most people were, too,” said Tova. AJA had adopted a vaccine requirement for all students and faculty, with exceptions only for students with legitimate medical reasons, and by the beginning of the school year, High School grade levels ranged between 89% and 93% double vaccinated.
However, for a period of time, the school released that the percentage of fully vaccinated students dipped, presumably because students were waiting to be eligible to receive their boosters. This dip in vaccination rates meant that unmasking would likely be risky due to immunities falling short of the AJA community’s expectations. Since then, the school has updated its vaccination rates and reported that between 63% to 75% of students per High School class are “Up-To-Date,” as well as 87% of faculty and staff, meaning that they have all the vaccinations for which they are eligible.
Despite what seems like an improvement in both vaccination status and disclosure, some students simply thought that unmasking was unwise, whether or not people were vaccinated, because COVID-19 is constantly developing and becoming more dangerous. “It’s important that we still remain cautious because this virus keeps mutating. There’s another strand on its way. As a school and a community, we [can’t] just pretend it doesn’t exist,” said an anonymous source from the school. Then again, according to this source, “from the beginning, people haven’t really worn masks,” so maybe a policy that permits unmasking will not make that much of a difference. But, the source disagrees on principle, saying “our school says that they follow the CDC guidelines, and the CDC says that most masks are effective and then they don’t require action.” To this source, the perceived hypocrisy and disregard for further mutations of COVID-19 make them disapprove of the unmasking policy.
Some students still wear masks, even if it is not a requirement, due to the lower-than-expected vaccination rate and fear of further mutations. As a whole, they simply want to stay safe and are not sure that unmasking helps that goal. Some do not have problems with others unmasking; they themselves just choose to keep on a mask. Others do have more of an issue with the mask-optional rule as a whole, citing the Omicron variant as proof that COVID-19 is expected to only become more and more contagious and immune to vaccines.
Nevertheless, Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz’s email announcing the new mask-optional rule was optimistic, announcing the school at “Green Status” and ready to proceed “full steam ahead” with business as usual. Rabbi Leubitz said that he and the medical team “continue to analyze the data, recommendations, our own transmission rate, and community infection levels,” and the mask-optional rule going forward may be subject to change, but as long as AJA’s COVID-19 transmissions stay below the “8% threshold,” described by Rabbi Leubitz as the “Yellow Zone,” and by the CDC as “moderate,” masks will continue to be optional. Junior Ethan Rolnick viewed this policy as the best of both worlds, as “whoever wanted to wear masks could if they wanted to, and whoever did not want to wear masks didn’t have to.”
Some precautions kept in place are a continued masking policy for the Pre-K and Early Childhood wing, a requirement for all visitors to be boosted if they wish to remove their mask, and weekly testing “to assure we stay below the 8% local threshold,” until April 1, 2022, after which time students were no longer tested.
Needless to say, there are mixed feelings surrounding the wearing of a mask. Many still feel that masks are necessary, and some feel that masks should have been done away with a long time ago, or maybe that we never should have started wearing them in the first place. Wherever each person personally is, the school has the ultimate responsibility to keep its students, faculty, and staff safe. Hopefully, the school will keep its word and respond to any possible threats from COVID-19. For now, all students can do is trust.