Israeli High Schools Take a COVID Chance – and Not Everyone Is Happy

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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A high school in Tel Aviv, in February.
A high school in Tel Aviv, in February.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Classes at the Ironi Heh high school in Tel Aviv were emptier than usual on Tuesday of last week. There was still a lot of activity at the school, with students studying in the library and in the school’s science labs. Others were coming to school for athletic activities in the gym. But most of the students didn't show up to school at all that day.

The administration at the school, which consists of both a junior high and senior high school, decided this year to dedicate every Tuesday to independent activities of this kind, which can also be done at home or elsewhere around the city.

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“People talk theoretically about independent study and the skills needed for the 21st century,” the school’s principal, Limor Miller, remarked. “This year, we’ve decided to turn theory into practice.”

The pandemic, which saw long periods when classes were taught remotely on Zoom, was an important factor in revamping the school schedule. “During the period of remote learning, we reflected on what was working well and what wasn't,” Miller remarked.

It turned out that there was also a positive aspect to learning remotely from home, so the school administration decided to embrace it on a long-term basis. Instead of traditional classroom instruction on Tuesdays, the class duration on each of the other days was extended a little and a separate schedule was designed for each grade level for Tuesdays.

A student protest demanding to return to in-person classes, in February.Credit: Emil Salman

The junior high school grades at the school devote the day to independent study, work on projects of a multidisciplinary nature or volunteer work. In the higher grades the students spend the morning in a classroom, but the rest of the day's schedule  is more open. Some students work from home while others go elsewhere in Tel Aviv, including, for example, to the urban entrepreneurship space at the Sarona complex.

For their part, the teachers get together for continuing education, joint study or for one-on-one meetings with their students.

And Ironi Heh is not alone in this new approach to learning. Other schools around the country have decided to draw on the experiences of the pandemic to shift to a four-day school week and one day at home.

“We want to prepare the children for the world of employment, which is shifting to a combination of work from home and the office,” said Oshrat Gani, the head of the Southern Sharon Regional Council, which serves as the local government in smaller communities in the area northeast of Tel Aviv. The two secondary schools in the region have shifted to classes four days a week and an additional day from home.

“By studying from home, there’s an opportunity to acquire skills involving personal responsibility and digital skills. And in addition, it’s also a chance to be by yourself. The school is wonderful, but it’s also intense sometimes,” she said.

Officials from the Education Ministry and local governments have backed the effort, but it’s been met with skepticism by some students and their parents.

“They told us that the goal was to continue the positive with digital instruction, to extract the good from the bad,” the father of a 10th grader at a Tel Aviv high school told Haaretz. “From the students’ standpoint, it hasn’t been that way. They talk in such lofty terms about independent study, but in practice, it’s just a day to stay in bed. After the students had been sitting at home without a routine, it’s ridiculous.”

Miller, the Ironi Heh principal, noted that any student who wishes can always come to school to study. “Over the course of the year, we will conduct a survey and talk to the students to understand how they feel about the process,” she said. “It’s not a one-year experience but rather a long-term process.”

In Gani’s region, there have been parents who also wondered whether the shift was linked to a desire to save the local government transportation expenses, something that Gani denies. “If there’s any kind of savings, it’s reinvested as we have extended the classroom hours on the other days,” she said.

She attributed the concern to residual feelings from the height of the pandemic. “Closing schools and shifting to online instruction every day was traumatic,” she said. Now, however, she said things will be different.

At the Southern Sharon education campus, which is one of the largest schools in the country, there are staggered days of the week during which the students don’t come to school. Instead of classroom instruction, arrangements are made for activities such as field trips, group study at various locations around the Southern Sharon region or studying from home.

“We’re in a trial period," said Ronit Rofeh, who is the educational director for the nearby Lev Hasharon region. During the period of the pandemic, it turned out that the students liked studying outdoors. But in the Lev Hasharon region as well, some parents have been suspicious of the new policy.

Rofeh said it was just a handful. “Of approximately 2,600 parents, there’s a small group of opponents who don’t understand why they need to leave their children at home for one day a week after such a long period during the pandemic,” she acknowledged.

One of those opponents is Ido Moseri, a father of three children at the Dror School. His older children are in Grade 9. “The coronavirus broke out when they were in 7th grade, and since then, they’ve barely been in school. They’re terribly behind. This is a generation of children that has experienced huge difficulties in the past two years. The school hitched a ride on the Zoom period by using ‘independent study’ and technology skills as an excuse, but our children know more about technology than the teachers,” Museri said.

A junior high school in Jerusalem, in July.Credit: Emil Salman

“They can experiment with independent study on Fridays, when there isn’t instruction in any event. As a parent, I believe that there’s significance in being in school. That’s the place where you make social connections. It’s absurd that we need to argue about this with the school itself,” he added.

Yiftach Guy, the director of the education department in the Jezreel Valley region in the north, had big plans for the current school year. After a year and a half of off-and-on distance learning, the regional council preferred not to return entirely to the pre-pandemic arrangements. “We thought, ‘How do we emerge from the coronavirus with insights and also implement them over the long term?” he explained.

The regional government developed an ambitious plan through which local high school students would do independent study from home one day a week. Junior high school students would study at youth clubs or cultural centers in their home communities in the region, which is relatively sparsely populated.

“It’s an opportunity for study of a different kind,” Guy said. “They can informally study in small groups or do research. We developed a plan for joint study with students from pre-army preparatory schools in the region. It’s a chance for them to get to know the students from the [local] community better and [for the students] to connect to the community."

But Guy’s plan encountered opposition from residents. “The feeling is that they took a solution created due to the constraints of the coronavirus crisis, which may have been good for its time rather than not studying at all, and they turned it into an educational solution for normal times,” a group of parents alleged in a letter to the members of the Jezreel Valley regional council. “All of this when there is no argument over the fact that the coronavirus crisis and being away from schools did harm to many children.”

The parents argued that the plan was developed too quickly without giving the students a sufficient alternative for the independent day. There were also concerns of a more principled nature, regarding the impact on the education and whether this was an attempt by schools to skirt their responsibility to their students.

“Not every family is capable of managing their children’s independent study, from the standpoint of adequate facilities, the presence of parents and supervision, the dynamic among siblings, etc.,” the parents’ letter stated.

In the face of opposition, the regional council decided to postpone the plan and to continue to engage in dialogue with the parents in an effort to bring the plan to fruition in the second semester or the following school year.

“We are not absolving the teachers of their responsibilities - on the contrary,” Guy said in response to some of the criticism. “This is a step that demands a lot more work from the teachers than ‘one-on-ones’ and investing in examining the work and providing feedback.”

Although he believes in the plan, he understands the source of parents’ opposition. “There’s a desire to return to the familiar and what is known, and there’s something threatening in a process that distributes responsibility among additional players, such as the communities, as well as the students themselves. I believe that this is the way to implement plans in education – not as an order from on high but rather from below, leaving room for initiative.”

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