Israel's Education Ministry Not Releasing Coronavirus Data, Worrying Teachers

As confirmed COVID-19 cases close dozens of classes and preschools, Education Minister says publication delayed so 'statistics can be confirmed'

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Students taking a high school matriculation exam in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Students taking a high school matriculation exam in Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The Education Ministry is delaying the release of information about classes and schools that have been closed due to coronavirus cases and the number of confirmed cases in them.

The office of Education Minister Yoav Gallant said publication has been delayed so “the statistics can be confirmed,” and to distinguish between infections that actually began during summer vacation and new cases that emerged since school started.

At the beginning of the school year, the ministry committed itself to releasing regular updates about coronavirus cases in the educational system, but to date it has not done so.

From information that local authorities have released, dozens of classes and preschools have started to close in recent days as confirmed cases of COVID-19 come to light. In Petah Tikva, for example, eight preschools have closed, as have 32 classes in various local schools. Other closures have taken place in Modi’in, Mazkeret Batya, Herzliya and other cities. In the ministry’s Tel Aviv district there are 1,937 pupils and 483 teachers in quarantine.

The ministry has changed its response to confirmed cases being discovered in a school. Whereas last year the discovery of a confirmed case led to the immediate closure of the entire school until the epidemiological investigation was completed, this year only the class where the student or teacher is sick is required to be quarantined. Teachers contacted by Haaretz expressed dismay about this, saying it puts them at increased risk.

Ultra-Orthodox girls attend classes at a religious school in Beitar Ilit, a "red" city whose education system was supposed to be closed, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

T., a teacher in a Sharon region high school, said the principal had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, but the regional inspector said only staff members who had spent time with him in a closed room at a distance of less than two meters needed to go into quarantine. She didn’t go to school Sunday, however, because she takes care of her elderly father who has cancer and is frightened she might infect him.

There is also a great deal of uncertainty about how studies will take place in “red” cities, where the rate of infection is high and which are expected to have a lockdown imposed on them for at least a week. During a lockdown the schools will close and revert to remote learning, but the ministry has said that special-education schools and preschools will operate normally.

The Teachers Union vehemently opposes this. In a letter to senior Education Ministry officials, the head of the Teachers Union’s preschool department, Anat Dadon, asked the ministry not to make exceptions of the preschools. “The preschool teachers open their classes without capsules, without maintaining a distance of two meters. All this is possible only in theory and impossible with such young ages,” she wrote.

School children wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as they walk in Tel Aviv, July 6, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Moreover, the ministry’s situation room last week sent a memo to teachers that students and teachers who live in red cities but who study or teach in schools outside those communities are permitted to leave them to go to school. Many teachers said they upset at this.

Dana, a special education teacher in a school in the center of the country that is attended by pupils from Bnei Brak and Arab towns in the Triangle region, said she had “very bad” feelings. “There are children in the school with serious accompanying illnesses, like muscular dystrophy and respiratory problems,” she says. “Attendance by children from red zones puts their lives at risk. Why are they allowing them to come?”

She is also concerned about the staff members. “We feed the children, who are of course not wearing masks,” she said. “These are kids who need to be taken to the bathroom, and with all the effort to preserve hygiene, there is contact with bodily emissions. Why are they abandoning us?”

The Education Ministry told Haaretz that the decision to allow pupils and teachers to leave locked-down areas for their schools was made in cooperation with the Health Ministry. But uncertainty reigns. The ultra-Orthodox Beit Yaakov Beit Hayeled school in Tel Aviv, which has many pupils from Bnei Brak, which is likely to be locked down, sent a letter to parents saying that the Tel Aviv Municipality had given its okay for the Bnei Brak girls to come to school. The municipality vehemently denied this and said that the decision regarding pupils who live in red zones is made by the Education Ministry. The city added that it had not heard anything official from the ministry about this at all.

In Ramat Gan, which borders Bnei Brak, the city said students from Bnei Brak can come in unhindered, while in Givatayim and Petah Tikva officials said they were waiting for official instructions on the issue.

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