Fearing Spike in Infections, Arab Officials Say Will Keep Schools Shut for Now

‘We will not take the risk’ and would rather wait out period of Ramadan, municipal leaders say

Jack Khoury
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Police enforce a checkpoint in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.
Police enforce a checkpoint in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jack Khoury

The National Committee of Arab Mayors decided on Thursday not to reopen schools in their towns and cities next week citing concerns of seeing a spike in infections.

Sources on the panel told Haaretz the decision would be reassessed next week, but would likely remain in force fo the next two weeks.

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They said they would look at reopening schools in about two weeks in areas where there are a negligible number of COVID-19 cases.

Figures presented to the committee led to concern the virus could spread anew once schools reopen, particularly considering the data reflecting high rates of infection in Arab communities. The parents’ committees and local authority heads in Tira, Umm al-Fahm and other communities had already said on Wednesday that they do not intend to send childen back to schools yet and would prefer to wait until the end of the month of Ramadan in the last week of May.

Arab high school students at a school in Taibe, central Israel, December 3, 2019.
Arab high school students at a school in Taibe, central Israel, December 3, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The parents’ committee cited a six percent increase in the infection rate in Arab communities recently, as compared to 1.8 percent at the national level.

On Tuesday, the Education Ministry announced plans for kindergartens and lower grades to resume session on Sunday with first through third-graders to attend school five days week and kindergarteners three days a week.

“Our decision is final and clear,” said Muatez Iraqi, head of the Central Parents Committee in Tira on Tuesday. Despite the economic pressures on parents to resume work, they also fear the pandemic is not over. Similar views were expressed in Umm al-Fahm as well.

Local authority leaders also worry they would be blamed for any increase in the virus’ infection rate. “I can’t take a risk like that,” Mayor Salim Salibi of Majdal Krum, where the number of cases rose from six to 15 last week. “The schools and the kindergartens are not able to execute the move that the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry intend to implement. It is best that we wait, even for two or three weeks, for the picture to become clearer.”

The mayor of Daburiya, Zuhair Yousif, announced on Tuesday that schools in their city would not open next week. “The concern about a spread of the virus and the way the state authorities are turning a blind eye to it compel us to make this decision. We do not intend to take a risk,” he said.

People stand in front of the Damascus gate as it is decorated for Ramadan during the night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, April 21, 2020
People stand in front of the Damascus gate as it is decorated for Ramadan during the night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, April 21, 2020Credit: Reuters/ Ammar Awad

The Abraham Initiatives NGO asked the director general of the Education Ministry on Tuesday to cancel plans for any school reopenings in Arab communities. “The Education Ministry guidelines do not take the Arab community into account,” the organization’s executive directors Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Dr. Thabet Abu-Rass said. “The infection curve in the Arab community is only at its start and there is a real danger to public health, even if just the lower grades go back to school. This is during the Ramadan fast, when even in normal times attendance is low and the school day is abbreviated. There is no logic to operating the education system in the Arab schools.” They urged the ministry to reassess their plans so that schools would not reopen during the first two weeks of Ramadan. They also proposed cutting short the summer vacation so that lesson plans may still be met.

In addition, the Arab municipalities have threatened to go out on strike at the beginning of next week, which could also affect any prospect of reopening the schools. The strike is being called to press demands for business owners to be compensated for their losses during the lockdown, paticularly local taxes. In an urgent appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery the municipalities were receiving less than their share of tax relief. The Arab mayors’ panel says their cities have lost about 70 million shekels a month during the crisis.

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