How Many Children in Israel Have No Access to Distance Learning? The Education Ministry Has No Idea

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Illustrative photo of distance learning.
Illustrative photo of distance learning. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The Education Ministry lacks crucial information about its distance learning experiment this spring, when schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a study published by the Knesset Research and Information Center for a discussion of the issue in the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, the ministry does not know how many Israeli pupils took part in distance learning during this period, nor how many lack the equipment necessary for learning from home.

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The Education Ministry did not respond to repeat requests from the Knesset for information on the measures being taken to aid students who lack access to a computer or adequate internet infrastructure, as well as preparations on the matter for the next school year, which begins September 1.

Schools and preschools were closed for many weeks in the last school year, during which the Education Ministry implemented remote learning. This allowed recorded classes to be broadcast over the internet and later on television, and preserved the contact between educators and the students over different platforms.

The ministry has data on what was broadcast on its systems, but only partial information on alternatives taken at the initiative of the schools, or meetings between teachers and students. This lack of data makes it difficult to reach conclusions concerning remote learning. For example, is the nonparticipation of students linked to a lack of computers – or other reasons, such as noisy surroundings, a lack of support from parents or the children’s digital abilities?

Despite the lack of data, the ministry confirmed that at least 100,000 computers are needed to enable Arab and special education students to participate in remote learning. The data were collected by the ministry in the wake of a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice by the Association for Civil Rights and other organizations. An analysis conducted recently by the chief economist’s division in the Finance Ministry showed that the situation is actually even worse: 20 percent of Israeli pupils do not have a computer at home and 27 percent do not have an internet connection. According to this calculation, there is a shortage of about 350,000 computers, the great majority of these among Arab and Haredi students.

Students attend school which socially distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem, May 3, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

But this figure does not provide a full picture concerning remote learning either. The chief economist’s figures relate to the availability of one computer in each home, but in order to conduct distance learning in times of lockdown, the number of siblings in each family must be taken into account – and sometime the parents, too – who need a computer throughout the day. The chief economist’s analysis shows that while every student from the top socioeconomic decile has two computers on average, only a quarter of students in the bottom decile have one computer per household.

The Knesset information center’s report also shows that government actions taken during the coronavirus outbreak period to reduce digital inequality among students were inadequate and partial. Then-Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced in April the allocation of 50 million shekels ($14.6 million) to expand the “computer for every child” program and to buy a computer for pupils who lack one. But according to the report, the Finance Ministry approved only 30 million shekels of this amount, of which only 13.6 million shekels were for 2020 and the rest for the 2021 state budget – which has still not yet been approved. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, 4,000 computers were distributed as part of the “computer for every child” program.

At Tuesday’s committee session, representatives from the finance and education ministries promised to approve and allocate 500 million shekels for communications infrastructure in schools and 400 million shekels for equipment for remote learning, including computers, internet plans, insurance and charging stations in schools.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), the chairman of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, said: “About 100,00 students – mostly Arab – did not participate in the distance learning since March, and it seems will remain behind and find it difficult to open the coming school year too. This is in spite of our raising this matter since March. End user equipment is a basic need, certainly during the coronavirus period, and we need to immediately allocate budgets and resources to guarantee equal education for everyone.”

The Education Ministry did not respond to a request for comments.

According to the plan now being drafted for the 2020-21 school year, fifth and sixth graders will attend school one or two days a week and will learn remotely the rest of the week. Students from seventh through 12th grades will also study in part from home and in part in school, but it has not yet been decided how the week will be divided up.

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