COVID's Untold Impact: Israeli Elementary Schools Witness a One Third Drop in Learning Skills

Israel's education minister says kids are now at greater risk out of school than in it, after recent figures indicate a 30 percent decline in learning skills and reading, alongside reports of increasing emotional distress

Or Kashti
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Students attend class via Zoom, in October
Students attend class via Zoom, in OctoberCredit: Eyal Toueg
Or Kashti

The Education Ministry says that in the 2020–2021 school year, overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic with its school closures and remote learning, students’ basic learning skills and reading declined by 30 percent compared to previous years among children in grades 1–3, and math and language shills declined by 25 percent among students in grades 4–6.

The figures are based on reports from approximately 70 percent of elementary and junior high school principals in recent weeks. According to a senior Education Ministry official, these figures show an urgent need for children to return to in-person classes in all schools and at every grade level in the 10 weeks until the end of the school year, to close learning, emotional and social gaps.

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The cabinet was expected to discuss coronavirus restrictions in the school system on Monday night.

According to the Education Ministry the number of children infected with the coronavirus has declined by 90 percent over the past few weeks. The senior official said that this decline, coupled with the high rate of vaccination among teachers, allow the schools to be fully open. “The risk to children and their future as a result of the school closures is much greater than the health risk,” he said.

Reports from junior high schools show a gap of 30 percent in achievement in language, math, English and the sciences compared to the rate of progress and level of knowledge in the past. The official said that even after some children returned to in-person learning, many attend school only two days a week. The children in grades 4–10 have studied in person in schools less than any of the other grades.

Students protest to demand a return to in-person classes, in FebruaryCredit: Emil Salman

Gaps in learning, as expected, can be seen most clearly among children from a low socioeconomic background.

The children have also been less physically active, the official noted.

Frontal, in-person learning is also important from an emotional and social perspective, the official said. A survey in January among 55 percent of all educational counselors found that one third of all children reported emotional distress, and that the educational psychology services have seen a 25 percent rise in assessment of suicide risk. Some 60 percent of educational counselors said children reported an increased sense of loneliness, and that there has been a significant rise in dangerous behavior, addiction and violence.

As reported in Haaretz a few months ago, the Education Ministry found that about one third of students were not participating regularly in remote learning.

The official said there was an “implied message to students [with the lifting of various social distancing restrictions] that you can be anywhere – except school. Most of the public refuses to accept this message.” He added that students need preparation for the move from kindergarten to first grade and from elementary school to junior high, and from there to the senior grades, and that “every day is important.”

Students in Modi'in attend class held outdoors in November.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

“Infection in the education system is minimal and is completely under control,” the official said. According to data from the ministries of health and of education, only about 900 children and teenagers are currently infected with COVID – and these children altogether attend less than 10 percent of the schools in Israel.

The figures also show that 80 percent of teachers and 70 percent of 11th- and 12th-graders have been vaccinated. “Most of the children infected contracted the virus outside of school,” the official said, adding that there is no basis to the claim that learning in “capsules” rein in the virus. “The figures show that infection behaves the same whether classes are full or divided,” he said.

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