Israel's Class Format for the New School Year Remains Largely a Mystery

The question remains: Can the plans to reopen schools with adequate coronavirus protections be implemented?

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020.
An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The school year will open on time on September 1 with small classes of up to 18 children, Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced on Wednesday – but the question is whether his plan can actually be implemented.

Gallant said preschool classrooms will be split into two spaces with a barrier between them, while grades one through three will also learn in split classrooms. In grades four through six and in middle and high schools, classes will be held in a mix of home and at-school classes.

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The preschool classrooms will be split into two with a teacher’s aide assigned to each group. Middle and high school classes will also be split into groups, in addition to learning part time from home, to limit the number of students present at any time in school.

The plans are still being worked out, said ministry officials, who declined to answer questions as to how the plan will be implemented. But here are the main questions to still to be answered.

Staffing

Operating preschools and grades one through three in small groups of up to 16 children requires a major increase in teaching staff. Gallant has retreated from his statement from last week, in which he said that in case of a high rate of illness in preschools they would be separated completely between separate buildings – a step which would have required hiring 20,000 new preschool teachers and another 20,000 teacher’s aides.

Yoav Gallant after taking over as education minister in May 2020.
Yoav Gallant after taking over as education minister in May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Gallant said on Wednesday that separation would be made within the existing classroom using a barrier, and this would allow the class to operate with only one teacher. Nonetheless, such a split would still require the hiring of aides and more teachers for the lower grades. Gallant said that in order to meet the staffing requirements, the ministry would bring in soldiers who serve as teachers, education students and retirees – but it is still not clear how many people this involves, when the hiring process will begin, how much more will this cost, and most important: what pedagogical training will the new educators receive.

A barrier in the middle of the classroom

Most of the preschool classrooms would be split using a barrier, said Gallant, but it is not clear how such a split is possible: The separation would prevent the children mixing at the entrance to the class and in the bathrooms. According to the plan, every preschool teacher would continue to be response for the entire classroom – an average of 26 children, so she could spread the infection to both groups.

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

Such a split would require modifying the preschool buildings as well as hiring more aides. In addition, Education Ministry regulations state that the area of a preschool classroom is at least 95 square meters – including the bathrooms and kitchen. This means the main classroom space is only about 60 square meters. It is not clear how it will be possible to divide up these rooms into two usable spaces.

Fourth through sixth grades

The bigger question marks are about higher grades. Gallant emphasized that it was important to hold a full classroom schedule for children through third grade to enable parents to go to work, and prevent further damage to the economy. But in order to hold class in groups of 18 pupils – instead of the previous average of 27 per class – first through third graders would be spread out in the classrooms assigned to higher grades. This would mean that fourth through sixth grade students could only attend school a small part of the time: Only one day a week, maybe two. How many days will they attend school, and what would they do the rest of the time? As of now, no answers have been provided.

Middle and high schools

Students in junior and senior high schools will attend school only part of the time, which would enable learning in smaller groups and prevent large gatherings in the schools. it is still unclear whether the division into groups of 18 would be hermetic – or would it be allowed to mix the groups as needed: For example, a group of 18 for math would not necessarily be the same group that learns a different subject together.

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