Israel Reopens Most High Schools on Sunday Under Coronavirus Restrictions

Some 400,000 students expected to resume in-person classes in towns with low infection rates, and the country's 423,000 junior high students the following week

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Pedestrians walk in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020.
Pedestrians walk in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some 400,000 10th through 12th graders in communities where the coronavirus infection rate is low are expected to return to regular classes on Sunday, according to a decision by the coronavirus cabinet Thursday. School principals will be able to decide whether to open schools either to seventh through ninth graders or to the higher grades on Sunday, with the approval of Education Ministry district heads.

In addition, the education and the finance ministries decided over the weekend that kindergartens, first and second grades will remain in session over the Hanukkah vacation.

High school classes will be limited to 20 students at most. Each student will be able to join two pods, and teachers will be able to teach up to four pods, with the exception of physical education and field trip instructors, who will be able to teach more groups as long as the lesson takes place outdoors. Most of the high schools are to limit themselves to two days of learning a week at the school, and distance learning from home the rest of the time.

The current plan is more restricted than the one published at the beginning of the school year, when principals were asked to maintain the same pods “as much as possible,” and teachers were allowed to teach five different pods.

Despite the restrictions, students are expected to take their winter matriculation exams in February.

Dozens of principals warned the Education Ministry’s director of secondary education, Dasi Beeri, that the restrictions will make real learning impossible. “We can bring the kids back for a few hours a week at most,” one principal wrote in internal correspondence. “Mathematically, this will be impossible to apply.” Another principal wrote: “Whatever we do, the students and the parents will be bitter.” A principal from central Israel added: “There is a gap between the populist declarations and reality.”

The Education Ministry is letting the principals decide what subjects to teach during in-school sessions, but recommended giving priority to those that will be presented in the winter matriculation exams as well as those that are harder to learn remotely, such as art, music, dance labs and technological studies.

Next week, Israel’s 423,000 junior high school students are expected to go back to in-school learning.

The education and health ministries issued a joint protocol that states that in the event of an unusual number of coronavirus cases (five within a short time), the entire staff and students will be able to be tested for infection, but they will not be required to do so. However, the Health Ministry is considering requiring teachers to undergo testing before they are allowed to enter the school. Teachers unions are not expected to oppose this step.

In certain cities, testing of teachers and students at the entrance to schools has already begun, with results given within 15 minutes. In Tel Aviv, rapid coronavirus testing stations will be set up in front of 25 high schools on Sunday.

First and second graders will attend school during the Hanukkah vacation, at a cost of 150 million shekels ($45.2 million). These funds will come from the government budget for meeting the needs of the school system during the pandemic crisis, out a total sum of 4 billion shekels earmarked for the education system during the crisis. The classes will be staffed by local government employees, as opposed to the children’s regular teachers, after the teachers union refused to approve its members working during school vacation.

During the vacation period, first and second grade will be in session from 8 A.M. to 1 P.M. while kindergartens will operate 7:30 A.M. to 1 P.M. Parents from wealthier communities based on Central Bureau of Statistics data will be asked to contribute funding of up to 30 shekels a day per child.

Malls open in trial run

Israelis flocked to the 15 malls granted a temporary license to reopen on Friday, with queues in front of every store. Stewards employed by the shopping centers as well as local authorities staff struggled to enforce strict social distancing rules as shoppers stood in line for hours to be drip-fed into chain stores.

Israel also marked Black Friday, and between 9 A.M. and 12 A.M., credit card sales nationally reached 400 million shekels – only 10 percent down on last year, and a little above sales from 2018. Still, owners deplored the government’s policy, arguing that only reopening 15 indoor malls was bound to create overcrowding.

“For a long time, the Health Ministry, which does not understand a thing about trade, has insisted on making fateful decisions,” said Shahar Turgeman, chairman of the Association of Retail, Fashion and Restaurant Chains. “We call on the Israeli government to open all trade immediately according to purple badge rules, and remove the limit of 10 people per store,” he added.

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