Israeli School System's COVID Failures Were Known but Not Fixed, Internal Report Finds

The Education Ministry failed to implement necessary changes when the school system was faced with COVID-induced problems, report concludes

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Students in a classroom in Ashdod, last week.
Students in a classroom in Ashdod, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Faulty decision-making, lack of basic data, unrevised procedures and poor communication between the ministry and schools in meeting the challenges of COVID are some of the failures enumerated in an internal Education Ministry report. The report had recommended steps in August that were to have allowed schools to better face the pandemic, but many were not implemented.

Part of the chaos in schools now, according to sources within and outside the ministry, is because of failure to apply recommendations such as mapping open spaces that would have allowed small groups of students to meet, reducing some academic studies in favor of work on emotional and social issues, and delegating powers to local authorities regarding the operation of schools during an emergency.

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The report “makes clear that work procedures in the Education Ministry are not suited to what's needed on the ground and must change,” according to one source.

Disclosed here for the first time, the report which was written by the ministry’s strategy department and relates to the period between school closures in the first wave of the virus in March 2020 and the summer of 2021. In August, it was discussed by senior ministry officials and was presented in September to the ministry’s former director general, Yigal Slovik, who was fired three weeks ago by Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The report also notes the impact of large gaps between Jewish and Arab students with regard to infrastructure and conduct of local authorities in dealing with the virus.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton meets children on their first day of school, in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, in September.Credit: Haim Hornstein / Pool

Although the problems were identified, Shasha-Biton and Slovik were slow to initiate moves to address them. Some issues have long plagued the system; others were made more severe by the pandemic. In general, the systemic failure left principals, teachers and education officials on the municipal level to fend for themselves.

The first chapter of the report deals with remote learning, which was meant to emphasize previously learned material, and for which teachers were to have been given guidance and “maximum flexibility according to the choice of the educational institution.” However, this “supporting infrastructure” was not implemented. The result was continuous improvisation to face the conflicting instructions and messages coming from the ministry’s various units.

According to sources familiar with the issue, some ministry officials did recently publish directives to pare down curricula, but they concede that this was not applied methodically. Junior and senior high school principals in particular noted that changes were mainly cosmetic. The problem was especially severe in junior high schools where academic learning was stressed over communication with individual students. The plan to increase flexibility to deal with children’s challenges at this level has only just begun to be implemented.

According to the report, teachers and students had difficulty with “hybrid” learning, which combines in-person classes with digital learning.

The report also calls for “lessons to be learned” with regard to matriculation exams during the pandemic. One solution, internal testing, does not sit well with institutions of higher learning, and has not been applied in a unified way.

Emotional support for parents, children and teachers has been lacking and children at risk have not been identified, nor have resources been devoted to treating them, according to the report. One issue is the lack of follow-up with dropouts. Sources say that the old definition of dropouts has lost its relevancy and no consensus has been reached on a new model. The “psychological fortitude” of teachers, “an inseparable part of the ability to lead important developments, manage crises and meet challenges,” has not been properly addressed, the report says, adding that some new teachers have already begun leaving the system and principals are feeling increasingly isolated.

Arab and ultra-Orthodox children have seen the continuity of their schooling particularly compromised because of the outsized percentage of their communities classified as high-infection, requiring them to close their schools, and a lack of infrastructure for remote learning. The report states that such infrastructure has been installed in 4,300 schools, but that connection to high-speed internet will be completed “throughout the coming year.”

The report also recommends the establishment of emergency management procedures to standardize remote learning and address emotional and social support for students and teachers.

One source says the school system is “working in the dark” due to a lack of data. This has been an ongoing problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Without access to a database, principals don’t know how their colleagues are managing with similar problems, and can’t make the rapid changes that are sometimes required.

The Education Ministry responded that it has been conducting “processes of drawing conclusions since the beginning of the Coronavirus. So far, four such processes have taken place [that have led to] actions taken in the immediate and long term. Ahead of the current school year, the ministry is dealing with gaps created during the pandemic, stressing greater management and funding flexibility for principles.” According to the statement, Shasha-Biton has earmarked 600 million shekels ($192,600) to reducing educational gaps and providing for students’ emotional needs, which schools have been allocated in a flexible way that allows them to use the money to address the needs of their particular school. The ministry said it was continuing “to advance technological infrastructure” by supplying 150,000 computers and training for teachers.

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