Israel's Schools Revert to Some Distance Learning Amid Spike in Coronavirus Cases

The Education Ministry has given secondary school principals autonomy to decide whether to go back to normal teaching or stick to coronavirus practices for another while

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Illustrative photo of distance learning.
Illustrative photo of distance learning. Credit: Eyal Toueg

The Education Ministry has given secondary school principals the freedom to employ distance learning in addition to classroom instruction as they see fit. But it hasn’t issued guidelines in writing on providing instruction to students at home, through technologies such as videoconferencing, apparently to avoid a possible clash with the Finance Ministry.

The Finance Ministry declined to provide a response for this article.

The new policy comes amid concern over a recent spike in coronavirus cases at schools around the country that has shuttered a number of them.

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Over the course of two days this week, Education Ministry Director General Shmuel Abuav spoke directly to a large number of principals and gave them autonomy to provide distance learning as long as some classroom instruction is maintained, as well as regular work hours for teachers. Sources told Haaretz that the ministry is avoiding written instructions because a cabinet resolution in April provided that teachers are in effect only to be paid for half a day’s work for teaching remotely.

Haaretz has found considerable disparity, however, among the various Education Ministry regions of the country regarding the extent to which schools have been given the option of distance learning. The Tel Aviv district gave permission at the beginning of the week for partial distance learning so that pupils need not be present full-time. This could involve half days at school, dividing classes into groups that come to school at different times, or entire days of distance learning on specific days. All of Tel Aviv’s large high schools – roughly 20 of them – introduced a flexible schedule this week.

“Flexibility, adjustment, and differential [scheduling] will help us make our educational system – the staff and students – safer,” an announcement sent to principals by the city’s education department stated.

In the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, the 10 junior highs and high schools have also begun combining classroom and distance learning.

Dozens of Jerusalem high schools have returned to distance learning combined with a limited presence of students at school, after a widespread coronavirus outbreak at the city’s Gymnasia Rehavia school, which was followed by the diagnosis of COVID-19 cases at other schools in the city. In many instances in Jerusalem, the push to revert to distance learning, which had been the norm around the country during an earlier coronavirus lockdown, came from parents who vowed not to send their children to school.

The Gymnasia Rehavia school in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Education Ministry’s Haifa district office said there had not been any transition to full or partial distance learning there. In the southern district, in Be’er Sheva, where there has been an outbreak of new coronavirus cases among students, one school has reverted to partial distance learning. Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich wrote to Education Minister Yoav Gallant asking him to allow a more comprehensive transition to distance learning. “If we want to maintain a degree of routine over time, we have to allow principals to offer feasible alternatives,” he wrote.

Not all mayors have been so supportive, however. The principal of one school that had a COVID-19 case recently said that he had asked to shift to distance learning earlier, when there was just a suspicion of an infection, but was not supported by the head of the local council, the equivalent of the mayor in his community. “There is no autonomy,” the principal said. “There are local council heads who aren’t allowing principals to use their judgment to close the schools.”

The Branco Weiss network of schools announced Tuesday that its six-year secondary schools would be integrating distance learning so that classes could be kept smaller. “It’s impossible to maintain proper distance among students in classes of 30 students and the demands are illogical,” the school network’s director, Sigal Moran, said.

The Amit school network reported on Wednesday that its students would be able to choose whether to come to class or participate from home by Zoom videoconferencing. The network’s school in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim has divided its grade levels into morning and evening shifts, with the backing of the local municipality.

“We see the reality around us and the fact that every day more and more schools are being closed, and we’re trying to minimize the risk and let the students continue with their studies,” principal Daniel Be’eri said.

Amit’s religious high schools in Modi’in decided to divide classes into small groups of students who come to school for shorter periods and to combine that with distance learning. “The goal is to reduce exposure time at school and bolster the ability to insist that the students wear masks when they are studying,” the principal of Amit’s boys’ high school in the city, Lior Halevi, said.

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