Concerns Grow After Israel Shuts Boarding Schools for At-risk Students Over Coronavirus

‘Some of the children have called their counselors and said they didn’t have anything to eat,’ social worker says

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A boy at the cafeteria at Bet Elazraki Children´s Home in Netanya, 2017.
A boy at the cafeteria at Bet Elazraki Children´s Home in Netanya, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israel’s residential youth villages provide children who are at risk or socio-economically disadvantaged from around the country with a supportive environment, including dormitory housing and schooling on campus. The coronavirus crisis has upended their lives. A social worker at one youth village in the north reported that most of the students have been home for several weeks due to the pandemic, and expressed concern over what many of them now face.

“Some of the children have called their counselors and said that they don’t have anything to eat, so they were given supermarket vouchers, but I’m sure it’s not enough. One boy called to say that he was afraid of his mother,” the social worker recounted, adding that they could begin engaging in alcohol or drug abuse or be victims of violence or other harm while at home with their families.

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The country’s youth villages and other residential settings that are run under the supervision of the Education Ministry shut down most of their operations about a month ago when the coronavirus pandemic heightened, sending about 21,000 students who spend most of their time at the residential facilities back to their families. The ministry stated in a court filing that no child deemed at risk was sent home. And even after the other children returned home, the youth villages remain open for students who have come to Israel from abroad as part of the Na’aleh program or who did not return home because it was deemed too great of a risk.

But the ministry has noted that once home, they have no authority to remove the students from their families by force. Instead social welfare authorities may recommend the step and sometimes the parents also say that is what they desire.

Information received by the non-profit group Makkom, which supports children with unlivable family situations, suggests that many of the students who have left youth villages and other dormitory settings are wandering the streets or are at risk of drug abuse or domestic violence.

A social worker from one youth village recounted the situation of a female student who wanted to stay in her dorm but was unable to because it was closed. The Education Ministry is permitting students who wish to come back to their youth villages to do so, even though school has not been in session as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

But upon returning to the youth village, they need to go into quarantine for 14 days to ensure that they are not carriers of the virus and that they do not infect others. As a result, many of the students have simply opted to remain at home.

The Education Ministry asked the Health Ministry for coronavirus testing for the students, which would shorten their time in quarantine, but the request was turned down due to the shortage of testing materials.

Last week, a petition was filed against the Education Ministry in the High Court of Justice seeking to return the children to the youth villages and claiming that the requirement that returning students remain in quarantine or be tested for the coronavirus is unreasonable. In its response to the case, the ministry stated that the policy has been changed and that as of this week, students do not have to be in isolation and can stay in groups of up to ten students in a dorm.

Another complication, however, is that the decision to return to the dorm is up to the students and their parents. A relative of one student told Haaretz that “he is hanging around on the streets, doing drugs. Of course he won’t want to go back to the dorm and will say things are good with him.”

In its response to the High Court petition, the Education Ministry said in part that staff from the dorms are in regular contact with the students and that all of those children who are deemed at risk have remained in the dormitories.

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