Israel's Return to School Mired by Lack of Computer Access

As back-to-school date approaches, Israeli schools question whether they can deal with coronavirus restrictions, while experts warn of consequences of remote learning – and teachers denounce the lack of preparedness

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Illustrative photo of distance learning.
Illustrative photo of distance learning. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Israel's state schools will be entering uncharted waters when they go back in session on Tuesday.

Principals are facing a host of technical difficulties; but many are also concerned about the social price that remote learning, an essential component of the Education Ministry's strategy, will exact. Not every child has a computer, or the supportive family dynamic required for a lengthy period of remote learning, and the situation is likely to increase the gaps between those of stronger and weaker backgrounds and possibly lead to an increase in dropouts.

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According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, 11 percent of Jewish households have no computer, compared to 29 percent of Arab households. While the overwhelming majority of children from homes in the upper deciles have a computer at home, in the lowest decile, only 45 percent do.

According to the Education Ministry, there is a shortfall of 144,000 computers among pupils, and the ministry plans to buy them. But it admitted that it would not be able to supply all of them this week. According to its estimates, 50,000 computers will be distributed within the next few weeks.

“The coronavirus has intensified the gap between pupils,” says Aliza Efraim, principal of the Ort Melton School in Bat Yam. “Even in normal times, our teachers would sometimes have to go to pupils’ homes to wake them up in the morning to make sure they got to school. With the coronavirus this need has increased. There isn’t always a strong parental presence at home. We can’t say, ‘Let the parents buy it,’ or ‘Let the parents do it.’ Our role as a school is more significant than in places that are stronger economically.”

During this year’s lockdown, it emerged that some pupils couldn’t participate in remote learning, not because they lacked a computer but because there wasn’t always electricity at home. “We knew before that there were difficulties, but we didn’t know to what extent,” says Efraim. “The coronavirus made a lot of things clearer about our pupils.”

During the past school year, she said, “There were pupils who went out to work – in fast food, in deliveries, at the mall – and simply gave up on learning. They were in a crisis of survival. When we went back to class we had to literally collect them to get them back to school.”

Shimron is also concerned about the difficulties some of her pupils will face. “There are kids with learning disabilities and ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder]; it’s hard for them to learn remotely. They are home alone all day and it’s hard.” She fears that children “will give up on themselves and decide not to go for matriculation. My concern is for the long-term consequences.” Shimron plans to devote a great deal of time to emotional support, “To be with a finger on the pulse to locate the ‘disappearing’ children.’”

Uncertainty abounds

Michal, a longtime teacher in the Haifa Bay suburbs, held a “getting to know you” event with her incoming students on Sunday. But the meeting, held separately with each of the class’ two halves, wasn’t the usual festive encounter marked by talk of what the pupils did over the summer. “They mainly wanted to know one thing: Where and how much they were going to learn this year,” said Michal.

Disinfecting a class room in Jerusalem in JuneCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Actually, Michal would be happy to have answers to that question, but she doesn’t. There is no room in her school building for 5th and 6th graders, because of the requirement that 3rd and 4th grades be split into classes of no more than 18 children each. As of now, therefore, the older kids can only come to school on Fridays, when the other classes stay home.

Last week it seemed there might be a solution: The higher classes would study in empty rooms in the adjacent community center, and thus could come to “school” three days a week. But the Teachers Union nixed that, saying no learning should take place in alternate locations, lest teachers be blamed if a child got hurt. “It’s not logical that they are trying to find a solution now. This is something that should have been done in April,” said Michal. “We all need time to prepare.”

Some of her new pupils said they would be getting together to study in groups of three or four, so as not to be alone all day. “That’s a nice solution, but in the end it’s our job as a system to provide them with a better solution,” she said. “Children this age may be legally allowed to be left at home alone, but not all of them can handle it. Some are scared. What are the chances of them concentrating on learning day after day?”

Michal is nervous about being infected by the coronavirus, but knows that she won’t be able to teach with a mask on all day. Education Ministry rules allow teachers to teach without masks so long as they stay two meters from the pupils. “But there isn’t even half a meter of space, even though only half the pupils will be there each time,” says Michal. “This two-meter issue is all a bluff.” She would be happier if her classroom had other protective equipment, like a transparent barrier between her desk and the rest of the classroom. Meanwhile, that’s not happening.

“We’re very concerned,” added Ruti Shimron, principal of the Shivilim Democratic School in the northern town of Pardes Hannah-Karkur. Her school’s classes have been divided into groups, but she says, “It’s clear that kids won’t be able to sit with masks all day, and that you can’t really separate the groups properly. The main concern is that we’ll find ourselves very quickly with a series of quarantines that will lead to the school’s closure.”

A student at the Cramim elementary school in Jerusalem on the first day back after the coronavirus lockdown, May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

In her school, it was decided that math, languages would be taught solely via Zoom, so that in school the pupils could enjoy their electives, homeroom classes and personal encounters with their teachers. But Shimron isn’t sure this model will prove lasting. “The teachers who’ll be teaching remotely are a little depressed,” she said. “To teach all day in front of a computer instead of being in personal contact with the students isn’t easy. They’re very wary.”

Moreover, the ministry insists that those teaching remotely do so from the schools and not from their homes, and it’s hard to find rooms in the schools in which teachers can do that the whole day. “We will reevaluate the schedule on Rosh Hashanah, and if we must, we’ll change it,” said Shimron. “The kids aren’t the only ones who have to get through this year, the teachers are important too.”

A principal in a southern high school who didn’t want to be named said that 24 hours before the opening of the school year, his schedule was still not completed. He noted that Education Ministry instructions are that no teacher can teach more than five classes, but a teacher in one major teaches seven different classes, and it’s an artistic subject that requires hands-on learning that can’t be conveyed over Zoom.

“I made all kinds of suggestions to the inspector, like having the teacher teach while she is in full protective gear, so that she could teach all her classes. I still haven’t gotten an answer.”

While he didn’t want to disparage the ministry’s desire to prevent coronavirus infections – there was a case in his school last year and he remembers the tension and fears it caused – many of the guidelines are “absurd. As it is the students come [to school] on crowded buses, and sometimes the teacher comes with them.

Students wearing protective masks at a school in central Israel, May 5, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Notes Efraim: “Teaching via computer can’t give you the look in someone’s eyes, the face-to-face encounter. You can’t address every pupil based on his abilities when you teach using Zoom.” To overcome the disadvantages of remote learning, she has cobbled together a schedule that will allow most pupils, especially those in classes of children at risk, to come to school five days a week, even if it’s just for a short period each time.

“We sat for 10 days, from morning until night, to build ‘capsules’ for the entire school that will allow for coming to school almost every day,” she said. She compared the schedule to a Rubik’s Cube, in which any small mistake could lead to the whole calendar collapsing.

For example, at first it was decided that every class would have recess at a different time, to reduce crowding in the schoolyard. Only then it emerged that if that were the case, some teachers wouldn’t get a break the entire day. “We had to reorganize everything again. There are still a lot of question marks,” she said.

Efraim is already prepared for the likelihood that the guidelines will change during the year with the spread of the virus. “To be a principal during this period means being a flexible thinker and accepting change easily,” she said. “Otherwise it would be too difficult to bear.”

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