Israel's COVID Cabinet to Debate Opening Lower Grades as Haredi Schools Remain Open

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Ultra-Orthodox pupils return to school in violation of COVID rules, Betar Ilit, the West Bank, October 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox pupils return to school in violation of COVID rules, Betar Ilit, the West Bank, October 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The coronavirus cabinet posponed until Wednesday its debate on reopening schools, in the face of disagreements between the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry.

The ministers are slated to decide on the next stage of reopening Israel’s economy on November 1: letting children in grades 1 to 4 return to school, or opening stores.

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The ministers will be debating a proposal to delay school openings by another two weeks beyond that date.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu said the delay was necessary so that the education, health and finance ministries could coordinate their positions. “We want to bring children back to school as safely as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox schools continued to operate unimpeded, even as the Education Ministry told the rest of the country’s schools that teachers can’t even have brief, informal outdoor meetups with pupils.

The Education Ministry claimed that it is not monitoring ultra-Orthodox institutions that violate coronavirus restrictions because it has no authority to enforce them.

“Here and there, there are violations and it is being handled by the police,” Aryeh Moore, head of the emergency department at the Education Ministry said.

“The Education Ministry has no supervisory powers” over institutions that have opened in violation of restrictions, he stated.

Contrary to Moore’s statement, as of August, Israeli law permits the ministry to revoke budgets from institutions if they break the rules.

On Sunday, some ultra-Orthodox elementary and middle schools reopened for tens of thousands of students despite lockdown regulations, which only allowed preschools to open. The Justice Ministry drafted a plan to strip funding from schools that reopen in violation of the emergency coronavirus regulations.

On Monday, it emerged that the Education Ministry is forbidding schools to hold “recess sessions” in which teachers meet with small groups of students outside.

But despite the ministry’s warning that the only permitted activity right now is distance learning, some principals have decided to organize such sessions, sometimes with backing from local governments.

In some locales, these principals’ direct supervisors at the ministry have turned a blind eye or even proposed ways to get around the ministry’s rules – for instance, through an expansive definition of “children at risk” or by holding the session after regular school hours.

Very few such sessions involve actual coursework. Rather, they might feature a masked teacher sitting in a public park or a shady city square and reading a story to three or four children sitting at a safe distance. Or it could involve the teacher leading a group discussion among 10 students about the problems of dealing with the coronavirus, including missing teachers and friends.

The teachers invite students whom they have identified as being in emotional distress. The sessions generally last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.

Supporters argue that recess sessions don’t violate the coronavirus rules, since the ban on traveling more than a kilometer from home has been lifted and gatherings of up to 20 people are now permitted outside. In Tel Aviv, almost all high schools are holding such sessions, as are around a third of the city’s elementary schools.

Teachers and principals say these meetings are essential to maintain contact with their students, something that’s impossible during Zoom classes. Moreover, these get-togethers ease the social isolation of online learning and have even led to improved performance by students in their distance-learning classes.

Nevertheless, in a move one principal termed “emotionally obtuse,” the ministry sent WhatsApp messages to several principals over the last two days warning that such sessions are forbidden.

On Tuesday, red-city restrictions were lifted for Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, Betar Ilit and Elad, as well as all neighborhoods in Jerusalem except for Ramat Shlomo.

The infection rate in Israel is declining, with 1,486 new diagnoses on Monday, out of 27,582 tests conducted, a positive rate of 5.4%. Some 2,278 Israelis have died of the coronavirus.

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