Classes are scheduled to restart in many cities on Sunday after the Health Ministry announced an easing in the conditions for reopening schools on Wednesday. In addition to cities defined as “green” and “yellow” – according to the government’s four-level “traffic light” plan – schools can reopen in “orange” towns with relatively low levels of coronavirus infection and where at least 70 percent of residents aged 50 and up have been vaccinated.
The ministry will also allow holding activities for up to 20 students in the open air, instead of the previous limit of nine, including staff – even in orange and red communities. The Health Ministry also allowed orange cities with a level of infection of up to 7 (on the traffic light scale) – instead of the previous 6.5 – to reopen on Sunday.
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Last week, the Health Ministry decided to update the colors of cities and neighborhoods twice a week, instead of once, and on Wednesday it backtracked and said it would go back to weekly changes. Every such change, which is based on the level of infection and other parameters, may allow some cities to reopen schools – while others will be forced to close them.
The frequent updates have caused schools to reopen and close with high frequency. For example, on Thursday, schools were opened in two neighborhoods in Be’er Sheva that were defined as yellow, but when the data was updated on Sunday the schools were closed once again because the neighborhoods were now orange. “Our children are like puppets on a string,” wrote a Be’er Sheva resident on the city’s Facebook page in response to the announcement. Another woman wrote: “The children were in nursery school for two days, happy. You’re closing everything after two days?”
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The Health Ministry also announced that because of the drop in infection rates the latest color update would be postponed from Wednesday to Thursday “to allow a greater number of students to return to class at the beginning of next week.”
On Wednesday, the coronavirus cabinet approved the return to school of 5th, 6th, 11th and 12th grades on Sunday in green and yellow communities, as well as in “light orange” ones, where the infection rates are relatively low and vaccination rates are high. Last week, preschool through 4th grade children went back to school in these towns.
Haredi schools open
Dozens of Haredi elementary schools for boys continued to operate on Wednesday in cities with large Haredi communities – in violation of the coronavirus regulations. Most of these schools reopened at the beginning of the week, given the drop in the number of new patients and the partial reopening of other schools according to the decision of the coronavirus cabinet – even though most cities with large Haredi populations are defined as orange or red, where schools are to remain closed.
This week dozens of these Haredi schools belonging to the non-Hasidic (Lithuanian) and Sephardi communities also reopened – in violation of the law. Some of the schools have small classes or are holding them outside. They joined dozens of other schools of the more extremist Haredi and mainstream Hasidic groups, which have operated continuously during the lockdown and never closed – including girls schools. In comparison, girls schools in the Lithuanian and Sephardi communities are still closed, for now.
The police have been operating in a very limited manner over the past few weeks to enforce the coronavirus regulations in cities and neighborhoods with large Haredi communities, and most of the schools have remained open. The Haredi parties tried over the past few weeks to have schools reopen in red cities too for students who have recovered from COVID-19 or who have taken rapid coronavirus tests – but the Health Ministry has opposed the move.
The level of infection in majority Haredi cities and neighborhoods has been falling, and the daily number of positive tests in these areas is now 18 percent of the total number of new cases in all of Israel. At the height of the third wave of the outbreak, this figure was 30 percent of all new cases.
Last month, the official in charge of coronavirus matters for the Haredi community in the Health Ministry, Roni Numa, said there is no enforcement of the rules in the Haredi educational system for political reasons, and that the rise in infection rates was due in part to these schools remaining open in violation of the regulations.
In response to a question from Haaretz, Numa said that both the Health Ministry and the police were aware that the Haredi schools continued to operate normally, and that he has raised the issue many times. As to whether this is a result of the political power of the Haredi parties, Numa said: “Certainly, the political power of the Haredim has an influence. We don’t live on the moon. We also need to remember that we are now in an election campaign. Whoever claims otherwise is avoiding the truth.”