Israeli Schools Handle Coronavirus Reopening Alone as Lack of Policy, Funding Bites

As Education Ministry plans don't extend far enough, local municipalities and schools work to plug the gap left by staffing and guideline limitations

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An empty halway is seen in a Jerusalem school, September 1, 2020.
An empty halway is seen in a Jerusalem school, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Keren Sabag, the principal of the Shaked elementary school in Ashdod, tried for hours on Tuesday to solve the equivalent of a sudoku puzzle of the highest degree of difficulty. The dilemma was over how to help her first and second graders, who are due to return on Sunday after weeks away due to the countrywide coronavirus lockdown, and maximize the number of days a week that they can attend school.

The government’s coronavirus policy cabinet decided this week that first and second grade classes will be split into two “pods” per class when they return on Sunday. They are supposed to have staggered classes for three days a week. But Sabag, like many other principals, has been trying to arrange for more classtime.

“The problem isn’t a lack of free classrooms, since the fifth and sixth graders are still at home and we have a lot of classrooms,” she explained. “The heart of the problem is staffing and the limitations that have been placed on shifting the teachers between pods.”

Sabag sounded optimistic. Her sudoku puzzle hadn’t been solved yet, but she expected to be able to build a class schedule that would permit the younger students to attend school four or maybe even five days a week.

Education Ministry sources were saying on Tuesday that it would be impossible to provide a full week of school for the first and second graders (who normally attend class Sunday through Thursday, with a shorter day on Friday). The ministry explained that it cannot fund staff for two pods per class, as Health Ministry guidelines require, for the whole week. But a number of municipal governments have said that they will go beyond what the Education Ministry’s plans provide.

It’s simply a matter of dividing up the resources differently, said sources at the Gezer Regional Council, southeast of Tel Aviv. The council was one of the first to announce plans to offer classes five days a week – and for grades one through four rather than just grades one and two. Authorities in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak also announced plans for five days of schooling a week for the lower grades. Over the past two days, the list has grown to include municipalities around the country, among them Modi’in, Herzliya, Holon, Rishon Letzion, Kfar Sava, Givatayim, Acre, Nof Hagalil, Arad and Eilat.

“All of the principals in the city are in agreement that we cannot bring the students back to school for half a week,” said Miri Nitzani, the principal of the Shimon Peres school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh Ha’ayin. At her school, the gym and the library will be temporarily converted into classrooms.

The classroom assistants initially recruited by the Education Ministry to help staff pods that had been planned for grade three and four will also teach younger students at Nitzani’s school, and Rosh Ha’ayin City Hall is working to recruit additional staff, although Nitzani said the school does not yet have a full complement of teachers.

Children are seen in a classroom as the school year begins, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

The chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, Haim Bibas, welcomed the local initiatives and called on the Education Ministry to grant the widest possible autonomy to the country’s mayors to deal with the situation. “We are losing a whole generation because of the country’s inability to make businesslike decisions and transfer authority to local government,” he said.

The Education Ministry first opposed the local governments’ plan but appeared to be relenting on Tuesday. In an interview with Army Radio, the ministry’s director of elementary education, Etti Sassi, said, “There will be a lot of schools that creatively and flexibly manage to provide first and second grade [schooling] more than five days a week.”

But the talk of creativity from school administrators raises questions regarding the government’s conduct. “Instead of providing solutions, the Education Ministry has shifted it all to the principals’ creativity,” one first grade teacher from the Tel Aviv area told Haaretz. “Autonomy has become synonymous with shifting responsibility.”

The absence of clear directives from the national government and relegating the matter to local governments and the schools is creating competition among the schools, she said, adding that the principals and teachers are paying the price.

“Parents are going around with the sense that they have to make demands and stretch the limits and get more, due to the fact that a nearby school or nearby town has managed to provide five days a week of class,” she said, “and the pressure is on the teachers.”

With all of the scheduling efforts this week, she said that as far as she could see at this point, there is classroom space for students to attend four and a half days a week, but that does not take possible staffing shortages into account.

“Again they’re putting the parents on a collision course with the local authorities and the Education Ministry,” said Tzofit Golan, the vice chairwoman of the National Parents Association, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee.

There are considerable disparities with the way the situation has been handled around the country. While some schools have decided to go above and beyond what the Education Ministry has planned, there are others who have still not decided what to do. The city of Lod, which has a sizeable Jewish and Arab community, said that it would like to provide more than three days a week of classtime, but needs to come up with the resources to do so. Among Arab municipalities, at this point, only Arabeh, Fassuta, Kaukab and Baka al-Garbiyeh have announced plans to extend classes to five days a week.

“The Arab local authorities are in tough shape when it comes to resources and personnel, so it’s difficult to initiate alternative steps. It requires organizational capacity, and it’s difficult,” said Dr. Sharaf Hassan, the chairman of the Arab community’s education monitoring committee. If the resources are found to extend class for first and second graders to five days a week, it will come at the expense of the students in grades three and four, and of the quality of instruction, Hassan added.

Bar Peleg and Jack Khoury contributed to this report.

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