Four Days In, Israeli Parents Don’t Want Their Kids to Be Guinea Pigs by Going Back to School

But the 60 percent of young children returning say things are going smoothly enough; since each child has his or her own desk, ‘there’s more room, so that’s cool,’ one girl said

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Students enter their elementary school in Sderot as it reopens following the ease of restrictions May 3, 2020.
Students enter their elementary school in Sderot as it reopens following the ease of restrictions May 3, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Four days after school reopened for grades 1 to 3, attendance remained around what it was the first day, around 60 percent. And this number doesn’t take into account the schools still closed – in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, with the latter only sending the older kids back.

The Education Ministry had no choice but to admit Wednesday that it had expected a gradual increase in attendance and was surprised at the shortfall.

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“We don’t want to be the guinea pigs,” a mother wrote in a Facebook group for parents.

Because preschools and day care centers still haven’t reopened during the coronavirus crisis, parents of particularly young children can’t return to work, so they aren’t hurrying to send their first-through-third-graders back.

The schools opened Sunday amid much uncertainty about how things were supposed to run. The Education Ministry sent over the rules – the number of pupils in each group, the number of teachers that each group could encounter, and the social distancing provisions. But this happened Sunday afternoon, hours after classes had begun.

Still, the week started reasonably calm – classrooms had special signs on them so the new, smaller groups would know where to go. And schoolyards were divided by ribbons, with each group assigned a different space.

Schools in some larger cities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, didn’t open Sunday because officials said they hadn’t had enough time to prepare. But by Tuesday all the state and state-religious schools were operating, ministry officials said.

On Tuesday, the younger children were joined by 11th and 12th graders, though they were returning to a limited schedule, concentrating on preparation for the pre-university matriculation exams.

One school in the Haifa Bay suburbs, for example, divided each class into small groups that will come to school three days a week for three hours each time – with each day devoted to intensive study of a different subject.

“I think this is a great plan,” said Evyatar, a 12th-grader.

An Israeli supervisor directs pupils wearing protective gear at Hashalom elementary in Mevaseret Zion, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, on May 3, 2020.Credit: Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

Nonetheless, teachers told Haaretz about various problems that had arisen, the main one being that the Education Ministry still hasn’t resolved the problem of teachers who are in a high risk group for the coronavirus, or who have a family member who is.

Teachers who asked principals about this issue were told to obtain an exemption from an occupational physician, but it can take months to obtain an appointment with such a doctor.

Some teachers decided to stay home and take sick days, but that raised another problem: The ministry isn’t letting the schools hire substitutes who aren’t staff members, as is done during routine times. The ministry says it’s forbidding this for health reasons; the result is that schools are pressuring teachers to come back to work.

Other problems touch on the way classes were arranged. To accommodate the divided classes, teachers who usually teach fourth to sixth grades have been enlisted to teach younger children. A second-grade teacher says it doesn’t always work out.

“The teachers for the older classes don’t know how to teach first and second graders,” she said, adding that a slideshow, for example, is a different animal when you’re in front of younger kids.

Some younger pupils have been assigned to rooms that usually house fifth and six graders, and the desks and chairs are too big. “It’s enough that they don’t know the teachers they’ve been assigned; at least the furniture should be right for them,” the teacher said.

Despite the problems, children and parents seem satisfied. Miley Friedman, a third grader at the Ramat Hahayal school in Tel Aviv, returned to school Tuesday. She described it as “really fun, like summer school,” adding that since each child has his or her own desk, “there’s more room, so that’s cool.”

They aren’t required to wear masks in class but must don them for recess, Miley said. During recess the kids may not play ball or cards; after all, that means passing an object on to a classmate.

“So we try other games. Today we played hide-and-seek and red light, green light,” she said, adding that in her group of 15 children, 13 are coming to school.

Miley’s mother, Lisa, said she was “very pleased” with the return to routine. Over the weekend she spent plenty of time wondering what to do.

“Naturally, you’re nervous,” she said, but in the end she sent her daughter because she got the impression that the school was being organized and responsible, including hand washing and the like.

Even though she still has both younger and older children at home, there was some relief, she said, adding, “How long can you be at home with four children fighting over two computers?”

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