Israel Weighs Mandatory Coronavirus Tests for Teachers Returning to School

Ido Efrati
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A coronavirus test is administered at a drive-through testing facility, September 2020.
A coronavirus test is administered at a drive-through testing facility, September 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry is examining the possibility of requiring teachers to be tested for the coronavirus before they can go back to work, at the request of the coronavirus cabinet. The ministry is also considering authorizing school principals and Education Ministry inspectors to prevent staff from returning to preschools and schools if they have not been tested, ministry sources said. Teachers unions are expected to oppose such a step.

The vast majority of teachers and preschool teacher aides who recently returned to work have not been tested, raising concerns in the Health Ministry. On Wednesday, Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy said the use of testing “has not been optimal so far. Less than 10,000 [teachers] were tested – an eighth of the potential.” Levy added that 2.1 percent of educational staff who have been tested were found to be positive.

On Tuesday, fifth- and sixth-grade students returned to in-person classes in cities categorized as green and yellow based on the Health Ministry’s “traffic light” plan. Classes will restart for the 10th through 12th grades next week in those cities, with the seventh through ninth grades scheduled to return the following week. Their return has not led to a jump in infection rates, said Levy: “There is some increase, but it is hard to say there is a significant increase in infection among the students.”

Nonetheless, the Health Ministry is still worried that the R number is greater than 1.0 – in other words, every person infected with the coronavirus goes on to infect at least one more person – and the number of new cases a day has crossed the 1,000 again. “We are worried about the numbers,” said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s head of public health services, on Wednesday. “We are looking at them very closely and trying to do everything we can so that all sorts of openings [of businesses] can be done in a cautious manner, so we don’t lose control of the pandemic,” she added.

“For all sorts of reasons, including pressure from different groups, some of it legitimate – we have deviated from the exit plan as it was planned. But we are currently updating it and we will present it in the next few days,” said Alroy-Preis. “Today we know a little more about how to exit the lockdown in a different way – how to use the principle of differentiability, and how to use testing to see if we can open something, dependent on negative test results.”

As part of the monitoring of the spread of infection in schools, a pilot program was begun this week using pooled testing, which allows faster and more efficient testing of fixed groups and pods of students, testing a large number of people with one test. These tests still use swabs, but are less invasive than the usual swab test. About 80 percent of students and their parents have agreed to such tests, said Levy.

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