Health Forms and Facemasks: Excitement at a Distance Marks Israel's Return to School

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A classroom at the Yigal Alon school in Givatayim, Israel May 3, 2020.
A classroom at the Yigal Alon school in Givatayim, Israel May 3, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

A bag of pens and health declaration forms greeted those arriving at the Ben Gurion School in Givatayim on Sunday morning as the country’s schools partially reopened. Many stood in front of the bag, which was hanging on the school fence, for those who forgot to fill out the form at home. At 7:40 A.M. there was already a very long line of parents and children at the entrance. With schoolbags on their backs and masks on their faces.

Two minutes later principal Carmit Giladi came to welcome the children and answer the parents’ questions. “When do you take the children’s temperature?” asked the father of a third grader. “We don’t,” replied Gilad, “you took their temperature and signed that everything’s all right. I’m relying on you, it’s built on trust.”

Natasha, the mother of a first grader, said her daughter is happy to return to school and that she herself isn’t worried. “Sitting at home is bad for the immune system,” she explained.

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That’s how the pupils in grades 1-3 returned after a coronavirus vacation of seven weeks. Not everyone showed up, of course. Because of the short notice (only on Friday did the government approve the resumption of studies in grades 1-3 and 11-12), in several local authorities, including Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, Haifa and Ramat Gan, the schools are closed for now. Those that did open (80 percent of schools, according to the Education Ministry) discovered only after the first bell that the ministry had published its official instructions for maintaining hygiene, proper faculty behavior and other school conduct.

One of the third graders was accompanied by his older brother, a fifth or sixth grader, who isn’t allowed in school for now. “Don’t you want to come too?” joked the principal. “Okay, we’ll see you in another two weeks.”

Giladi was forced into the role of bouncer. She explained to a mother who wanted to enter with her son that this was not allowed. She also asked every child if he knew to which subdivision of pupils in class he belonged, and directed them to their classrooms. After all the children were inside, several mothers remained near the school talking. “My daughter jumped out of bed this morning, if only that would happen every day,” said one of them.

Israeli pupils wearing protective masks enter the Sadot Elementary School as the country eases lockdown restrictions in the town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, May 03, 2020.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Not far from there is the Yigal Alon School, which also returned to activity in a limited format. A walk through the corridors hints that time stood still here. There are posters about Purim, nothing about Passover or Israel Independence Day. But the place is no longer deserted, and already at 9 A.M. the principal proudly declared that over 200 pupils in grades 1-3 had arrived, out of 350. According to the Education Ministry, nationwide attendance stood at about 60 percent (180,000 out of about 300,000 pupils in state schools).

“I thought we’d get to 50 percent, I was very surprised,” said principal Regina Aviram. She said the first day was a success. “We thought it would be hard, and were afraid. But everything was fine. The children were prepared for the situation and knew how to behave.” She said that every group had its own play area and the groups were released for recess at different times.

Aviram said she and her staff had to “build a new school. A new division of classrooms, new play areas, a new schedule.” Only at the last moment did she learn that teachers could go from one classroom to the next and didn’t have to stay with the same group all day long. Because some of the teachers usually teach grades 4-6 and the younger children don’t know them, each teacher wore a name tag. “Now we have to see how to give the teachers a break, because now they have to supervise at recess too.” Aviram admits that the arrangement isn’t perfect. “But we have to start somewhere.”

Another problem was the uncertainty about whether the preschools and the schools in neighboring Ramat Gan would open, which determines whether teachers with young children can return to work. Aviram says she planned four different schedules, for every scenario. One of the teachers was appointed “the crying monitor,” in case there were children who had trouble saying goodbye to their parents. But “nobody cried,” she noted.

There was already a learning atmosphere in school. In a first grade group the children sat separately, one at each table, participating in a reading lesson. The coronavirus panic is also helpful for enforcing discipline. “We don’t go to walk around in the corridor,” the teacher told a pupil who tried to leave in the middle of the lesson. “You know it’s forbidden because of the coronavirus.”

Gili, a third grader, admitted that she had mixed feelings about going back. “I didn’t want to go to school because I had fun at home,” she said. In the past weeks she painted, prepared food, watched television and fought with her younger siblings, but that’s part of the fun. But on the other hand she admitted that she didn’t really learn. “The Zoom goes out or the internet gets stuck.” In the end she apparently was happy to go back to school, “to finally meet all my friends,” she smiled.

An Israeli pupil wearing protective gear sanitises her desk upon return to school at Hashalom elementary in Mevaseret Zion, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, on May 3, 2020. Credit: Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

A dual fear

The sights in Givatayim were repeated, even if with certain differences, in other places. In the Kramim School in Jerusalem the pupils cleaned their desks thoroughly before school began. “I’m so happy to see all of them, it’s like a dream,” said second grader Emily. “It’s as if during the entire coronavirus period I was inside the tummy and I was just born.”

In Nofim School in Migdal Ha’emek the return was somewhat more tense. Perhaps that isn’t surprising since the percentage of those falling ill in the small town was quite high (101 patients out of 26,000 residents). At the entrance to the school the administration didn’t make do with the pupils’ health declarations. One after the other, the masked children approached the security guard so he could take their temperature.

The chairman of the parent’s committee and Moti Abecassis, the municipality’s security officer and head of emergency services, walked among the parents and children. They wanted the parents to feel confident, and welcomed them as though it were the first day of school, in an attempt to allay the fears with a festive atmosphere.

One of the parents waiting to fill out a health declaration, was doubly concerned: He has two children, in second and third grade. Although he was worried, he decided to bring them. “If everyone is afraid and doesn’t send their children, what will happen?” A mother says she hesitated but said, “There’s nothing to be done, they have to return to the routine.”

Another mother said the decision was “somewhat difficult. I read a chapter of Psalms in the morning, the Creator gives us treasures and he will guard them,” she explained. “Take care of my child,” she asked to the security guard at the entrance.

At three minutes to eight there was suddenly a stream of parents and children, creating a bottleneck. There was no longer two meters separating those waiting to have their temperature taken, and Abecassis was disturbed, and he once again reminded everyone to observe the distancing rules. If that wasn’t enough, at one point the guard’s thermometer broke. But there was a relatively simple solution: The children were sent to another entrance.

An outdoor class at the Yigal Alon school in Givatayim, Israel May 3, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In the end the majority voted with their feet; only 170 of the 260 first to third graders came to school yesterday – at least until the first bell. One of the mothers said, “Either we move forward or we’ll go backward, to a lockdown. There’s no choice, we have to return to the routine.”

A babysitter for every teacher

Many local authorities returned to routine, although several cities didn’t open their schools. But in Herzliya, for example, the 16 elementary schools were opened. Teachers repeatedly said that the excitement was offset by their inability to hug the children.

There was also excitement in Bat Yam, where school administrators said that all the members of faculty showed up, as well as a high percentage of pupils, “more than expected.” They are now working to open the high schools, and helping the independent school systems in the city to meet the requirements. “We have to prepare for a return to a coronavirus routine for quite a while,” said Mayor Tzvika Brot. “We have to return to work while meticulously observing the directives designed to maintain the welfare of the pupils and the public, and we won’t compromise.”

Another major city that returned to school was Rishon Letzion, which opened its 52 elementary schools and eight more for special education. Of 15,000 pupils who were supposed to report, about 38 percent showed up. Starting tomorrow they will find babysitters for the children of faculty members so the parents can teach. Deputy Mayor Liel Even-Zohar, who holds the education portfolio, said, “Children who don’t come to school because they or their parents are in an at-risk group – we’ll find a specific and personal solution for them.”

In neighboring Holon, 60 percent of the pupils and 90 percent of the teachers came to school. To be on the safe side, the municipality reinforced the teaching staffs with young people doing national service and those studying in the city’s pre-army study institutes.

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