Israel's Confused School Reopening Policy Shakes Confidence in Education System

Despite numerous announcements to the contrary, kindergartens will not reopen on Sunday - meanwhile, local administrators keep schools shut in Arab and ultra-Orthodox areas

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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

Israeli children in first to third grades will be able to go back to school on Sunday in groups of up to 15, but kindergartens and day care centers will remain closed, the Health Ministry said on Thursday.

The decision left parents and teachers confused, coming after a week of the Education Ministry telling parents that kindergartens would reopen on Sunday as well.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to continue discussions on the matter on Friday. Sources say there is general agreement about the Health Ministry’s recommendation to let first- through third-graders return to school, but that the Health and Education Ministries are in disagreement about what to do with kindergartens.

Meanwhile, the Bnei Brak municipality said on Thursday it will not be opening its schools at this time. The city has a relatively high rate of coronavirus cases.

Likewise, the National Committee of Arab Mayors decided on Thursday not to reopen schools in their towns and cities next week citing concerns of seeing a spike in infections. They said they would look at reopening schools in about two weeks in areas where there are a negligible number of COVID-19 cases. The decision has the backing of local parents’ committees, which cited the Arab community’s 6-percent increase in virus cases in recent days, versus the 1.8 percent national average.

The Health Ministry recommended that children in first to third grades be split into groups of up to 15.

A ministry official said on Thursday: “From what we’ve seen, children are susceptible to the disease and are contagious like adults, perhaps a little less. So far some 3,000 Israeli children have fallen sick, about 1,000 of them through the age of nine and some 2,000 older than that.”

He said kindergarten children should be divided into smaller groups of up to eight children, because the younger the children the harder it is to keep the physical distance among them in order to prevent contagion. Typically, Israeli preschool classes have up to 35 children per teacher.

However, officials in the medical profession and academia believe children are not ‘super spreaders’ of the coronavirus.

“We learn from world literature and from states that haven’t stopped school studies that the disease rate among children is extremely low and that children are mostly not contagious. In Israel, 97 of those who died (or close to half the total number) are over 60. Children are seen as ‘super-spreaders’ of flu, but this is not the case with COVID-19. The [decision to ] return to school should be based on which regions have high disease rate or which children have preexisting conditions,” a senior health official said.

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

Implementing the ministry’s recommendations involves several logistical limitations and greater responsibility on the schools’ part.

Throughout the country, parents, teachers and school principals have been waiting for an official government announcement about returning to school on Sunday, amid contradictory reports leaked from the education, health and finance ministries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to continue discussions on the matter on Friday. Sources say there is general agreement about the Health Ministry’s recommendation to let first- through third-graders return to school, but that the Health and Education Ministries are in disagreement about what to do with kindergartens.

The criticism of teachers in kindergartens, schools and local authorities of their superiors has become more widespread during the pandemic outbreak. A senior education official described it as a crisis of confidence in the system.

The extent of this lack of confidence is significant and could turn out to be critical on Sunday. Splitting classes in the lower grades into groups of 15 will force principals to use their entire teaching staff. Teachers who have lost their confidence in the Education Ministry and its vague instructions, and in the Finance Ministry, which had threatened to cut their wages, may be in no hurry to return to work.

An elementary school principal in the central region says her staff is stretched too thin. If a few teachers call in sick it will be very hard, or impossible, to split the lower classes and continue the remote instruction for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades at the same time, she says. “I need 100 percent of the staff.”

Some sources say the Health Ministry had promised to recruit education students as teaching assistants to help the schools out, but has not done anything about it.

The personnel issue cannot be overstated. Last week, with the partial renewal of studies in special education classes, the Health Ministry decided not to oblige teachers to come back to work, on the assumption that schools would manage with fewer teachers due to the smaller number of students in attendance.

This time the number of students allowed back to school is expected to be much greater and it is hard to tell how many teachers and their families are at risk and hence exempt from work. It is even more difficult to assess how many others will ask their doctor for a sick note.

Another group awaiting answers consists of teachers who have young children.“There’s no solution for these teachers,” a local government source said. Also, if only one spouse is allowed back to work, the teachers with young children may be the ones who must remain at home with the children. So will single mothers.

An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 15, 2020.
An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 15, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

Currently teaching groups larger than 15 students is banned, so crowded classrooms of 31-35 students will have to be split into three groups, requiring additional classrooms and teachers.

Transportation to and from schools has also been approved. Masks for teachers and thermometers at school entrances, which only a few communities provide, are also an issue.

Meanwhile, many principals are confused and frustrated in view of the decisions made above their heads.

“We’re left with many questions and no answers. It was more important (for the government) to publish the reopening of schools than to plan it properly,” one principal complained in a community’s Whatsapp group.

“In recent weeks we’ve discovered a government vacuum,” a municipal education official said. “This is an hour of truth for all of us, because we don’t expect much from the Education Ministry.”

“It would have been possible to solve all the problems if the ministries had made an orderly decision and stood behind it for five minutes,”a principal said. “In the chaos that was generated the result is that they’re driving the principals, teachers and parents mad. The Education Ministry is used to stable and routine work conditions. When it has to adapt to changing situations and accommodate the needs of various groups, its rigidity and failures are exposed.”

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