About two weeks ago, when first through fourth graders returned to school following the country’s recent coronavirus lockdown, parents at Kibbutz Gazit in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley decided to keep their kids close to home.
They were already wary after someone on their children’s bus to their regional school was found to have been infected with COVID-19. That sent 40 kids and their parents, a total of 100 people, into quarantine at the beginning of the school year.
The parents asked the regional school, which serves four communities, to separate the children into pods limited to their own communities to reduce the risk of other similar incidents. But neither the school nor the Education Ministry’s northern district office were receptive to the idea.
As a result, parents at Kibbutz Gazit decided not to send their children back to the regional school. Within a short time, they organized their own alternative school program on the kibbutz with the help of neighbors and relatives.
The Gazit project is one of a number of similar initiatives organized in various rural areas to avoid children being infected with the coronavirus on the school bus or at school itself. The common denominator among the initiatives was that the Education Ministry refused their requests to split up the students into localized pods.
In Gazit’s case, a police officer was dispatched to the kibbutz to prevent what was said to be a “gathering” in violation of coronavirus health restrictions. But before the Education Ministry put an end to it, Gazit’s alternative school attracted considerable support on the kibbutz itself.
Retirees and residents on unpaid leave joined other kibbutz members with spare time on their hands. They volunteered their time and talents so that 51 children at four grades levels could have a full day of education. The livestock manager taught them English, while another kibbutznik gave them instruction in arts and crafts and nature.
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“My mother, who’s 81, taught first grade,” said Amit Brand, whose son Ron is a third grader. “She hesitated at first, but after a few days, she said she couldn’t look on from afar at such a nice project.”
Brand, who chairs the kibbutz education administration, said the parents weren’t trying to cause upheaval with the Education Ministry, but simply wanted to handle the return to school better. “We approached them innocently, because we thought logic was on our side,” he said.
A short time after the alternative school project got off the ground, the ministry made clear to the parents that it officially opposed to the initiative. “Gatherings of students organized by parents in their communities is illegal, and I intend to use all means at my disposal to break them up immediately,” the ministry’s northern district inspector, Orna Simchon, wrote last week to one mother from the kibbutz in response to her official inquiry on the matter.
The following day, parents received a warning letter from their children’s school that they were in violation of the country’s compulsory education law. A police officer showed up at the kibbutz warning that the students were violating coronavirus limitations on gatherings. An Education Ministry inspector also paid them a visit to see whether parents were in fact running an educational program without ministry approval.
“The police officer saw a class being held outdoors in a natural setting, in small groups, in keeping with regulations,” Brand said. “The inspector was confused: He said, ‘Wait a second. There are teachers here,’ but they weren’t teachers. They were the livestock manager and a parent who is a high-tech entrepreneur. Neither of them was being paid to teach.”
“Sending police forces to a site where the children are? That’s a red line from my standpoint,” remarked Efrat Barel, a mother of fourth grade twins. “If you have a problem, resolve it with the parents. You don’t do a thing like that.”
The police officer left without issuing any fines, but his actual presence, in addition to the threatening letters, took the wind out of the sails of the initiative.
Education Ministry officials have said the situation is more complex than what the parents claimed. “Parents can’t decide that anyone can establish their own school or study group,” a ministry source told Haaretz. “Educational institutions have oversight. There’s responsible staff. There are teachers. With all due respect, an educational setting is not [the equivalent of] a babysitter.”
“During routine times, the school really is a safe place,” Barel responded. “But now is a period of emergency.”
She recognizes that such alternative education programs don’t provide a perfect solution, she said, “but it’s better than the solution the Education Ministry is offering now – where students are combined over and over on the bus to and from school and for after-school programming. Maintaining them in pods in their communities would avoid infection and quarantine and permit greater stability – and the children need that.”