Less Than 3 Percent of Israeli Students Tested Weekly for COVID in Risk Areas

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A class being held outdoors this week at Tel Aviv's Ironi Tet school.
A class being held outdoors this week at Tel Aviv's Ironi Tet school.Credit: Moti Milrod

The government’s coronavirus testing program at schools in areas with moderately high infection rates is sampling fewer than 20,000 students a week – just 2.8 percent of the roughly 700,000 students attending school in those communities.

The government’s Magen Hinuch (Education Shield) COVID testing program had been due to serve as a major tool in the prevention of outbreaks of the virus in the country’s schools and is intended to enable the schools to continue operating normally even if the rate of community infection increases. The program is not fulfilling its potential.

So far only 253 of the roughly 1,000 eligible schools have signed up for it, and that includes some schools that have not yet reopened from the last coronavirus lockdown, according to Health Ministry data. The Magen Hinuch program is within the overall responsibility of the Education Ministry, but the army’s Home Front Command actually runs the testing system, using outside contractors and suppliers. Participating schools require the consent of at least 75 percent of its students’ parents.

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The system makes use of an efficient pooled testing method in which samples from a group of students are tested together. It is only if the pooled test indicates that someone in the group is positive for the virus that the students’ are then retested to determine who is infected.

The system provides a quick and less expensive indication of the spread of infection – and is helpful in quickly identifying and halting the chain of infection. In fact, the program was one of the main justifications for the expanding the reopening of schools to include communities with moderately high rates of infection – light orange, as it is known according to the Health Ministry’s traffic light rating system ranging from green to red.

The Health Ministry has allocated 100,000 tests per week to program, with initial plans to begin at a pace of 20,000 tests per week – or roughly 4,000 a day. The actual numbers have even fallen short of that, however.

On Monday, for example, 3,089 students from 14 schools around the country were tested. On Sunday, only 1,198 coronavirus tests were conducted.

A pilot program for regular COVID testing in the country’s schools had initially been launched in November at 60 schools in 25 communities. The program was halted in January, however, when the country went into its third lockdown, which shuttered the country’s schools.

On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry office involved in coordinating the effort to combat the coronavirus issued a report that called the pilot testing program a success. “All of the schools that joined the pilot asked to continue and to be included in Magen Hinuch,” it said.

The report noted that the number of students participating in the current program is increasing from week to week and that the testing has demonstrated that the average capacity among the students being tested to infect others is lower than that of the general population.

“This means that we are identifying confirmed cases even before they have managed to infect others,” the report said. The document cited research showing that weekly testing, with results provided in than 24 hours, reduces the infection rate by about 50 percent.

But the shift from a limited pilot program to a large-scale program on a national level is a complex task. There is also a major public information component in the broader program that requires the support of mayors and principals, as well as the support and consent of parents. It also requires cooperation from the students themselves.

In retrospect, it appears that there was insufficient advance preparation for the launch of the broader program. Parents were only asked for their consent to have their children tested after schools reopened. Many parents did not know about the program and did not understand everything that it involved.

That led to discussions and disagreements regarding the effort to enlist the consent of 75 percent of the parents in each school. Many parents responded positively to the program – but they lacked information on how the testing was to work and how important it really was. Some parents thought the program was essential, while others feared the tests would make their children uncomfortable – or that the children would more regularly find themselves in quarantine.

An example of the extent of the misunderstanding over the program was the comment of one mother in a parents’ Facebook group.

The Gymnasia Ivrit school in Jerusalem, where there was a major outbreak of the coronavirus in May of last year.Credit: Emil Salman

“Magen Hinuch is a dangerous plan whose true goal is to prepare public opinion to vaccinate our children and put them into the database of the pharmaceutical companies,” she wrote. “It’s not meant to protect anyone and it’s not going to enable our children to study in school.”

Some principals also object to the program, and although the Education Ministry and municipal governments support the program, they are unable to force schools to participate. A lot of work is still necessary to convince parents and principals.

The ministry said it was making major efforts to expand the program and that things were improving, but in the end, it still requires the parents’ permission and cooperation from the students.

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