As Israel's Schools Reopen, Education Ministry Belatedly Issues Guidelines

Several local governments, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Bnei Brak, leave schools shuttered in absence of clear health policies

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An Israeli child disinfects her desk at a school in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020
An Israeli child disinfects her desk at a school in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Israel's schools reopened for the first time in seven weeks on Sunday, with grades 1 up to 3 and 11 and 12 resuming their studies and the rest being scheduled to return later this month.

Israel is one of the first countries in the world to order the reopening of schools after an extended period of lockdown, but many districts refused to reopen in the absence of clear health guidelines from the Education Ministry, which were published late on Sunday morning only after schools were opened.

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Schools in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Bnei Brak remain shuttered. Schools in Arab localities are not reopening either, and some have asked to delay the return until after Ramadan. According to the Education Ministry, 80 percent of schools in Israel reopened.

As he waited to fill out a health statement at the entrance to his children's school, Moti said he was afraid to send them back. "But if everyone's afraid, then what?" he asked. Sena, whose son goes to the same school, said she also had her doubts, but added that "There's no choice, they have to get back to their routine."

The special education system will reopen fully, and at-risk children and teens will also return to school. Ultra-Orthodox schools are reopening grades 7-11 as well as small yeshivas, in order to prioritize Torah study.

A shuttered primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020. The board reads 'I have no other country.'Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

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The Education Ministry announced municipalities may reopen schools by Tuesday.

“The directives will be published overnight, or by morning at the latest,” the ministry stated on Saturday. The ministerial committee dealing with the coronavirus approved on Friday the reopening of grades 1 through 3 and 11th and 12th grades – but not kindergartens, as had originally been planned

According to the ministry’s plan, kindergartens and pre-schools up to age 3 should open on Sunday, May 10, and grades 4 through 6 will reopen no later than June 1.

Following the ministers’ decision, the Teachers Union asked the Health Ministry for clear instructions regarding what is expected from schools with a return to normal, including defining high-risk groups, how schools and kindergartens are to be disinfected, rules for wearing masks and other issues.

'Negligence'

A girl looks at a school closed because of the coronavirus, Hadera, March 13, 2020Credit: The Associated Press/ Ariel Schalit

The professionals' view is that trying to bring children back to school, even in lower numbers, in such a short time frame is simply impossible. 

“A school can’t reopen on such short notice,” said Gadi, a teacher in northern Israel. “To prepare a school to reopen after the summer takes at least three weeks, so 48 hours, with Shabbat in the middle – that’s negligence, that shows a lack of understanding on the part of the decision makers,” he said, adding the high school where he teaches had not yet decided whether to reopen or not.

Teachers and principals scrambled to do their best on Saturday evening, sitting in videolink meetings that continued into the night. “You can’t just turn on the faucet. You have to organize the school, disinfect the building, organize small groups, prepare lesson plans,” Gadi says, “and that’s before we even talk about the teachers. We have to find out which teachers have small children who will need care, which ones are in a high-risk group. The most talented principal can’t do all this in the time allotted.”

The National Security Council had advised the ministers before their meeting Friday not to open kindergartens before May 10, citing unpreparedness of these frameworks and the municipalities as well as disagreements among various bodies on how the return should be handled.

The National Security Council’s report criticized the Health Ministry for not issuing an order that would allow the Education Ministry to properly prepare for a return to school. “The required cleaning and disinfecting policy is not implementable,” the council said. However, it praised the Education Ministry for its preparations.

Despite the Education Ministry welcoming the decision, with Minister Rafi Peretz saying it was “good tidings for hundreds of students, teachers and the whole country,” there were rumbles in central government too. “The changes in the decisions of the Health Ministry are putting municipalities off balance and driving the public crazy,” a minister said, while on Thursday, a source in the Education Ministry called the Health Ministry’s conduct a “zigzag.”

'Driving us crazy'

A classroom is empty at an elementary school in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

A high school teacher in the Haifa bayside suburbs said the lack of clarity was driving them “crazy.”

On Independence Day, second-grade teacher Or's school put together a schedule for grades 1–3 according to the Education Ministry’s directives. By Thursday, the plan had become irrelevant because the Health Ministry had added a demand that the teachers could not go from group to group, and that each group had to have its own teacher. This was not thought through. “First of all it means that teachers won’t be able to take sick days because a substitute won’t be able to enter the classroom. On the other hand, they’re telling us not to come to teach if we have a fever.” 

Or says she still doesn’t know what teacher will be given the other half of the class and so she doesn’t know what material to give the teacher. “Let’s say they give the other group a music teacher or an English teacher – how will she teach math?” To solve the problem, Or prepared two possible lesson plans – one, if the teacher for the second group can teach all the subjects and the other, a more informal lesson. “I don’t know what will happen, but I don’t want to come to class empty-handed,” she said. “Maybe at the last minute new instructions will be issued and neither of the plans I prepared will be relevant,” she added.

The Education Ministry has so far not outlined the obligations of teachers who are in a high-risk group. According to Or, teachers were told that only an occupational physician can declare a teacher to be a member of a high-risk group and pre-existing illnesses or pregnancy are not enough to exempt teachers from coming to school.

“At present, family physicians have been instructed by Health Maintenance Organizations not to issue sick leave or health declarations involving high-risk groups and to refer patients to an occupational physician,” the Teachers Union wrote to the Health Ministry’s deputy director general, Prof. Itamar Grotto. “This solution is unrealistic and impractical because an appointment with an occupational physician can take six months, and the teachers are expected to go back to work in a few days.”

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