Coronavirus Closures Leave 250,000 Israeli Special Education Students Without a Framework

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The closure of Israeli schools as part of the effort to fight the spread of the new coronavirus has left about 250,000 special-education students without the treatments they need and the consistent framework that is so important to many of them. In some cases, their parents understand the decision, but many are angry and desperate.

“I’m mad at the system,” says Inbal Damari, whose son, Nadav, 8 has Angelman syndrome. “If they want to protect public health, why not close all the workplaces? We go to buy a popsicle at a kiosk, we’ll go stand in line at the supermarket because there’s no choice, so what have we accomplished? Either have complete isolation or find other solutions.”

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Angelman syndrome characterized by intellectual disabilities, seizures and sleep disorders. “These conditions, the uncertainty, put him completely off balance. A regular child can play or read a book, but it’s different for children with special needs. From his point of view, the whole world has changed. The worst is that we don’t know when it will end.” As for treatments, Damari says private therapists are hard to find. “I don’t even know where to ask. Nobody talked to us about this. They’ve abandoned us.” She thinks the best solution would be to divide the special education classes into smaller classes.

Tali Bushari, whose son Liav, 7, is on the autistic spectrum, thinks the closures went too far. “There are seven children in Liav’s class and two teachers. That doesn’t exceed the ban on,” she said, referring to the Health Ministry’s prohibition of gatherings of more than 10 people.” Bushari is worried most about the psychological and occupational therapy her son is missing and the lack of a regular schedule, particularly critical for children on the spectrum. “Every change is a source of anxiety. On Friday he was happy for the day off. I can’t imagine what will happen in a few more days, or a month.”

‘A solution must be found’

“It’s a huge burden. says Efrat Hacham, whose daughter Gal, 12, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and uses a wheelchair. “A solution must be found. School is the only place she has friends. At home she has only her parents and my mother.” Hacham works as a cleaner twice a week, but has had to leave her job to be with her daughter. “Take their temperature at the entrance to the school, decide on shorter days. But give the parents some hope. They’ve left us without treatments. Now they say the therapeutic pool is closed. She could regress. It’s very hard,” Hacham says.

Sharona Eliyahu Hai, the director of rights advancement at Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, says that over the past few days the organization has received a wave of calls from parents of children in the special education system. “People are calling in hysterics, asking what to do.”

According to Racheli Abramson, head of special education in the Education Ministry, the ministry is making preparations for distance learning and has instructed teachers to maintain contact with the children and their parents and plan regular daily activities for them.

“A large percentage of the children can benefit from remote learning,” she says, adding that the ministry is preparing to provide emotional support online, using therapists who work in the schools.

But parents say these solutions are not realistic for their children. According to Bushari: “Phone and distance learning are all right for a regular child, but Nadav doesn’t know how to explain his feelings, he needs a different solution.” Alut’s Eliyahu Hai says: “You can’t sit a special education child down and say, ‘learn already.’” Eliyahu Hai also has suggestions to keep special education running, for example by rotation of classes, every day a different class. “To say, ‘we’re closing everything,’ is to ignore the severe distress of these children.”

Abramson said that in addition to distance learning and virtual support, the ministry is looking into the possibility of paramedical therapists making home visits, but this depends on approval of the Health Ministry. “We have submitted a request for teams to go to the children’s homes. Meanwhile we haven’t received authorization.” As for the idea of operating the special education frameworks on a limited scale, Abramson says: “We are operating under the decisions of the Health Ministry. If there’s an epidemic and there’s a national effort to stop it, we all have to be there.”

The Education Ministry said in a statement that the special education department “will publish organized directives for the educational staffs of the schools, including maintaining communication with the students and their parents.”

Inbal Damari with her son, Nadav, 8.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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