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Israeli Education Minister's Big Wager to Open Schools Risks Lives

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Education Minister Yoav Gallant.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The farcical decision to open schools even in towns with a high incidence of the coronavirus is the latest symbol of the government’s feckless handling of the virus.

This time, the star of the show was Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who insisted on opening schools in these “red zones” come what may, in defiance of the opinions of the coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, and the team of experts advising him. Gallant is taking a huge risk not only with the lives of residents of these towns, but also with Israel’s entire effort against the virus.

And he’s doing so while playing fast and loose with the facts, to say the least. Take, for instance, his insistence that the decision to open the schools was made “after a situation assessment and an orderly analysis of all the data, with reference to the professionals’ recommendations.”

It’s not clear which professionals he’s talking about. But all the relevant professionals – that is, the experts advising Gamzu – unanimously concluded that schools must not be opened in red zones. “Opening the school year in red towns would lead to an outbreak of the disease in these towns and other towns,” Gamzu said, adding that it would be “like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

Prof. Ronni Gamzu.Credit: Moti Milrod

Gallant also wasn’t telling the truth when he asserted Sunday night that the coronavirus cabinet had accepted his position. In reality, he and Gamzu had a stormy argument over the issue at the cabinet’s meeting that evening, and it ended with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordering Gallant, Gamzu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to discuss the issue further on Monday. If they still couldn’t reach a decision then, he would make it, Netanyahu added.

Thus Gamzu was shocked after leaving the meeting to see Gallant announce, both on Twitter and in conversations with journalists, that the cabinet had approved opening the school year on September 1 even in red zones.

Moreover, Gallant periodically asserts that reopening schools in the spring, after the first wave of the virus subsided, didn’t cause a catastrophic rise in infections. But when schools reopened in May, Israel had only a few dozen new cases per day. Today, it has 1,500 to 2,000 new cases a day, giving it one of the highest incidences of the virus in the West.

The risk of reopening schools at all in this situation is enormous. And that’s all the more true in red zones, where the virus is already running rampant.

Gamzu’s patience is impressive, but it’s not clear how long it will last. He was called to the flag as a professional whose decisions are based on expertise rather than politics. But almost every Sunday, ministers try to undermine his status during the cabinet’s weekly meetings. They bad-mouth him to reporters and refuse to accept his professional suggestions.

The cabinet is behaving like a group of preschool children. Instead of working together to fight the virus, each minister is insisting on getting his own way on issues dear to his heart – weddings, trips to Uman, open skies, synagogues, schools and so forth. There is no holistic national vision, and Israel’s incidence of the disease reflects this.

According to a report released Sunday by the task force set up to monitor the hospitals’ situation, the health-care system is just a few dozen patients away from the critical point at which hospitals can no longer function. That would necessitate an immediate lockdown.

And in the view of all the experts, Gallant’s irresponsible decision to open schools in red zones brings us closer to that situation.

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