Israeli Teachers in Limbo Amid Conflicting Reports on Preschool Reopenings

Social Affairs Ministry says it still hasn’t received any instructions from the Health Ministry, so it doesn’t know what to tell day care operators

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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A preschool in Israel's Givatayim in May 2020
A preschool in Israel's Givatayim in May 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Faced with contradictory messages from the Health Ministry about whether preschools and day care centers will be able to reopen on Sunday, teachers and caregivers have no idea how to prepare – or if they should even bother preparing.

The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for day care centers, said it still hasn’t received any instructions from the Health Ministry, so it doesn’t know what to tell day care operators.

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“I’m very scared that an announcement will be made only on Saturday night,” said Hannah Bachar, who runs a Na’amat day care center in Tel Aviv for 150 children up to age 3. “Reopening the center requires at least two days of preparations.”

Einat Benita, a regional director for the WIZO organization, which oversees 19 day care centers in the center of the country, said decision-makers seem to think reopening the centers “is like flipping a switch.” But in fact, many preparations are necessary.

For instance, she said, all the workers put on unpaid leave must be rehired, and replacements must be found for those who decide not to return, either because they have found other work or because they have nowhere to put their own children, given that elementary schools aren’t reopening yet.

A preschool class in Givatayim during the first wave of the coronavirus, May 17, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“Even in normal times there’s a shortage of manpower, and now the problem may only get worse,” Bachar agreed.

Moreover, buildings that have been standing empty must be cleaned, inspected for safety problems and possibly repaired, and food has to be ordered for the children, Benita said.

She was also concerned about the children, who spent only two weeks in day care before the lockdown began and must now start over again, since they won’t remember the staff.

“These are children who have undergone countless separations and adjustments over the last half a year,” she said. “They were separated [from their caregivers] in March, returned in May, separated in August, returned in September and separated again. This is something unprecedented, but nobody has thought through how to cope with this situation.”

Preschools teachers were equally concerned about the lack of time to prepare, adding that they don’t even know whether schools will reopen fully or only in capsules, since the Education Ministry hasn’t issued instructions yet. Moreover, many are afraid to return to work.

Sharon Rogozinski, a preschool teacher from Jerusalem, warned that fully reopening preschools, with 30 children or more per class, will lead to many people getting infected. Even dividing the children into two capsules that come to school at different times won’t really work, she said, because the teachers see both groups and can infect everyone.

“Let’s not repeat the same mistakes,” she urged.

Health Ministry officials said this week that preschools should open only five days a week rather than six, thereby eliminating the need for substitute teachers who may spend one day a week at several different preschools.

“But then what will we do with the substitute teachers?” demanded Anat Dadon, a teachers union official. “Tell them to sit at home?”

The ministry had three weeks to think about solutions for this problem, she added. But so far, nothing has been proposed.

Children outside a school on the first day of the year, September 1, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Health Ministry officials have been contradicting each other on whether preschools and day care centers will be able to open this Sunday.

The ministry’s deputy director general, Prof. Itamar Grotto, said on Monday that they could. But its director of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said on Sunday and again on Monday that they couldn’t.

Dr. Deena Zimmerman, head of the ministry’s department for maternal and pediatric health, told the Knesset on Monday that from March through the end of September, 5,650 children under the age of 3 who attended day care caught the coronavirus.

“It’s impossible to say there’s no infection at this age,” she told a joint session of the Coronavirus Committee and the Committee for the Rights of the Child. “Children can get infected, and they can infect others.”

Grotto, both in the radio interview and at the Knesset meeting, said the Health Ministry doesn’t plan to significantly alter the model for reopening schools, either. “But that model failed,” retorted Knesset Education Committee Chairman Ram Shefa, who also sits on the Committee for the Rights of the Child.

Health Ministry Director General Prof. Itamar Grotto, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset

Grotto responded that the main problem was the movement of teachers between different classes, which the ministry wants to reduce as much as possible. “That’s the main change we’re demanding,” he said, adding that schools wouldn’t reopen at all in cities with a high incidence of the virus.

Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit of Hebrew University told the committee that students who have the coronavirus actually infect relatively few of their classmates. Data collected by Jerusalem’s education department from contact tracing at the schools under its auspices founded that each student infected only 0.5 to 1.8 percent of the other students in their grade, she said.

Like Grotto, she said the real problem is teachers who move from class to class rather than remaining with specific groups of students.

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