Students at Ironi Aleph high school in Tel Aviv were in the middle of practicing classroom evacuation procedures for a missile alert on Wednesday when a bomb exploded on a bus two blocks away. The sound of the boom was drowned out by the noise of their feet stomping down the stairwell. But within minutes, thanks to instant messaging, news of the terror attack spread through the building like wildfire, raising panic levels yet another notch.
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A few days earlier, children at the Rokach elementary school in south Tel Aviv arrived for classes in the morning as usual only to discover their school had been taken over by the army. That is how it looked to them at least, as hundreds of men in fatigues poured into the building. Their principal pulled them aside to explain that in emergency times, their school doubles as a check-in base for reservist soldiers being called up to duty and there was nothing for them to fear.
At Hayovel elementary school in central Tel Aviv, children were sitting in the school shelter during a practice missile drill one day this week when the sirens went off announcing the real thing. On another day, panic broke out in schools throughout the city when a “Red Code” alert for Tel Aviv was put out by mistake.
These are just some of the almost surrealistic scenes that have played out this past week in schools around Tel Aviv, a city that for the first time found itself targeted by Hamas missiles.
The decision taken by civil defense officials to keep Tel Aviv’s schools open even after the city had been hit by missiles may have come as relief to some working parents, but for school staffs, it presented some unusual challenges. How much class time, if any, should be devoted to talking about what was going on and how much information should be provided? Should tests and homework be canceled until tensions calmed? How should the many children who seemed to be having fun scaring the living daylights out of their classmates by imitating siren sounds be handled? And what to do about the panicky ones who were prone to jumping out of their seats every time a motorcycle or ambulance passed by?
For schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, this was a first-ever encounter with Hamas missiles. The last time sirens were sounded in the city, during the 1991 Gulf War, they weren’t even around, and most are also still too young to remember the wave of terror attacks that crippled Tel Aviv during the second intifada.
“Considering everything, I was amazed at how well-behaved and cooperative the children were,” said Hagit Vigodman, principal of the Rokach elementary school. “They were absolutely wonderful, and I was very very proud of them.”
Like many principals in the Tel Aviv school district, Vigodman instructed teachers to devote 15 to 20 minutes at the start of each school day to talking about what was going on and allowing the children to share their feelings and concerns. She also requested that all tests be postponed until further notice and that teachers make an effort to lighten the homework load, with students understandably under considerable stress these days.
At many schools, principals sent out daily emails informing concerned parents about procedures being taken to protect their children. At some schools, these procedures involved spreading out recess times so that not all the children were out at once, as they usually are. At almost all schools, they involved daily drills to practice evacuation procedures.
“The school made damn sure that the kids were drilled to the point of being able to react without having to think about it,” noted the mother of a fifth-grader at Gavrieli elementary school.
The usual rules that ban schoolchildren from using cellphones in class (though not usually enforced anyway) were disregarded, and at most schools, children were even encouraged to call their parents after each siren. After the bus bombing on Tuesday, with the perpetrator running loose, parents were asked to pick up their children from school at the end of the day and not allow them to come home alone. On most other days, children were instructed to go home from school immediately and not loiter in the streets as they might usually do.
“It was a crazy week, and our objective was to make things feel as normal as possible in a very abnormal situation,” said Anat Zeidman, the principal of Ahavat Zion elementary school. “The way we did that was by trying to stick to our routine as much as we could.”
Dr. Arie Kizel, a member of the faculty of education at the University of Haifa, noted that it’s important not to hide the truth from children during times like these, but at the same time, teachers should avoid dwelling on the situation too much. “It’s a matter of finding the right dosage,” he said.
At one Tel Aviv middle school this week, the sirens sounded while eight-graders were in the middle of taking a test. A few minutes later, when the principal notified them that they could go back to their classes, some of the children told the teacher they were scared and wanted to go home. “If you go home now,” she told them, “then Hamas will have won the war.”
“Not the most intelligent thing to say,” comments Jerusalem-based clinical psychologist Amos Spivak, who specializes in children and adolescents. "But on the other hand, it’s important not to let what’s happening cripple all other activities.”
On Thursday morning, barely 12 hours after the cease-fire had been declared, Vigodman devoted the first few minutes of the school day to explaining to her charges what the term meant. “They didn’t understand why we had the left the door to the shelter open if we had a cease-fire,” she said. “But I only got clearance to close the shelter at the end of the day.”
Ahavat Zion school children played host this week to two Tel Aviv pre-schools, which had no fortified shelters of their own. On Thursday, they bid farewell to the little ones in what Zeidman describes as “another sign of things returning to normal.”