"Syringe and Vaccine" by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey sparked debate this fall with his policy ruling out COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates in the state’s public schools. One Jewish politician has been vocal with her objection.

Alma Hernandez, a Jewish Democrat representing District 3 in the Arizona House of Representatives, favors vaccine mandates in all of Arizona’s schools. “When it comes to vaccine mandates, I think that’s something that is very important (to) public health,” she said.

Private Jewish schools, which have freedom to implement their own policies, are also divided on the issue.

Pardes Jewish Day School requires children to wear masks indoors and social distance in classrooms, but does not require masks outside. Vaccines are also not required, as most of the children attending the school are too young to receive the vaccine.

Chanie Gluck-Yetnikoff, a member of Pardes’ COVID Task Force and a parent at the school, said that Pardes’ policies are heavily based on the opinions of two pediatricians on its task force.

“The (pediatricians’) advice has been to keep the masks on because they’ve seen a much lower spread… of any kind of illness with the masks being on,” she said.

Gluck-Yetnikoff said that the school was originally planning to have optional masks, but after COVID cases began to rise in August, leadership decided that the best course of action was to reinstate the mask mandate.

“After the holidays, we’ll reassess,” she said.

There are concerns about having young children wear masks, and some parents have brought up issues such as not being able to see the children’s facial expressions, but Gluck-Yetnikoff said that Pardes takes parent’s views into account, and many parents seem to be in favor of a mandate.

“We’re trying to make the best decisions with the information that we have,” she said.

If children do contract the virus, the rest of their class does not have to be quarantined, according to CDC guidelines.

“Even if there’s an outbreak, we’re not making the whole class quarantine,” Gluck-Yetnikoff said.

School leaders will be meeting next week to discuss how they move forward.

“We’re watching the numbers very carefully,” she said.

Rabbi Raphael Landesman, the principal of Shearim Torah High School for Girls, disagrees with the idea of schools enforcing mandates. He made sure that his school allows his students and their parents to choose how they protect themselves from COVID.

“We feel that people have the power now to make a choice,” he said.

“Our policy is that we don’t require either [vaccines or masks],” he said. “People are allowed to wear masks if they choose… but we don’t mandate it because people who want to be protected can be protected.”

Landesman has faced backlash from parents in the past year regarding the mask rules for the 2020-21 school year, but has seen little concern over the past few months.

“Last year we had masks for most of the year and we were pretty tough about it,” he said.

This year, he has decided to be guided by Maricopa County’s handling of the virus.

“It seems to me that the general attitude of the community around us, and the city around us, is that we are not taking precautions to prevent COVID-19,” he said, citing the lack of mask requirements in restaurants and stores. But he wonders if requiring masks in his schools would hasten the end of the pandemic.

“I don’t know if efforts on our part would really be all that productive anyway,” he said.

Despite his views against mandates, Landesman said he would comply if the state government decided to put a vaccine mandate into place.

“We would follow whatever was mandated for us, we’re not here to fight,” he said. However, a county-wide mandate “does not seem to be the direction that the state has ever taken in the fight against COVID-19.”

Regardless of Landesman’s strong views about vaccines and masks at his school, he is open to change.

“I think we would consider changing our policy if there were an outbreak,” Landesman said.

Hernandez, on the other hand, sees value in the mandates and spoke out against Ducey’s recent decision to challenge Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper’s ruling allowing them in schools.

Hernandez said that when it comes to putting vaccine and mask mandates into place in our schools, it is important to take every precaution to keep teachers, students and the community safe.

“It’s no different than any other vaccination that is required,” she said.

Hernandez would approve of a vaccine mandate in Arizona similar to California’s, which requires every eligible child in LA county to receive a vaccination in order to attend school. “We shouldn’t put others in danger because one individual doesn’t want to do something,” she said. JN