About 150,000 schoolchildren in the south of the country did not return to school yesterday from Hanukkah vacation, after the Home Front Command and the Education Ministry ordered the closure of all educational institutions within 30 kilometers of the border with the Gaza Strip. The expansion of that range, from 20 kilometers to 30, puts communities including Ashdod, Kiryat Malakhi, Kiryat Gat, Rahat and the Be'er Tuvia Regional Council on a war footing.

The Education Ministry is expanding its distance-learning programs, considering bringing 11th- and 12th-graders to other parts of the country for "marathon" study sessions to prepare for the bagrut matriculation exams and is preparing to send aides and volunteers directly to the homes of special education students. In addition, efforts are underway to locate donors who can help provide computers, for remote learning, to children without computer access at home.

Teachers in the affected region called their students, referring children to psychologists as needed. According to the director of the ministry's Southern District, Amira Haim, only a small number of students were in need of counseling due to the war.

Ministry officials said yesterday that they are examining the possibility of permitting reinforced schools in the Sderot and Sha'ar Hanegev areas to reopen, in response to requests from local officials.

"This morning was a new situation for us," the principal of Ashdod's Eshkol elementary school, Shosh Elgazar, said yesterday. "Our main message to the children was one of reassurance and of trying to reduce anxiety. The teachers told their students that it's okay to be afraid, to cry and to be a little sad and that adults have the same feelings, too."