The number of school-age children and teens in quarantine because they were exposed to a confirmed case of the coronavirus has gone up 85 percent since the school year opened to 102,000, according to data published Thursday by the Health Ministry.
The rise in infected students comes as the number of people each COVID carrier infections – known as the R number – is continuing to drop in Israel, attesting to a downward trend in cases as the booster vaccine drive continues.
Health Ministry figures show that the R number stood at 0.83 on Thursday, after reaching a three-month low of 0.95 a day earlier. When the R number is below one, the pandemic is contracting. But that figure is calculated from an average obtained 10 days earlier; in other words, it reflects the data from August 30, before the new school year started on September 1.
The number of seriously ill COVID patients in Israel stood at 680 as of Thursday – six more than on Wednesday – of whom 154 were on ventilators.
Despite the sharp rise in quarantined children, principals are complaining of a lack of response from the Education Ministry unit responsible for collecting data on students and teachers who have fallen ill with the virus, and about vague guidelines on distance learning.
“During the holiday I became a kind of district physician, contact tracer, Home Front Command representative and the one that parents get angry at because of guidelines that were written with almost no understanding of what’s happening on the ground,” said an elementary school principal in the center of the country.
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“After we warned of the chaos, we were told to stay calm and breathe. We’re alone,” added Smadar Morse, a Tel Aviv elementary school principal. Teachers Association head Yaffa Ben-David is threatening to order principals and preschool teachers to stop dealing with any coronavirus issues unless each school names a coronavirus coordinator by next week. The coronavirus coordinators, whose job it is to monitor the status of sick students, were only meant to begin work on October 1, and only in elementary schools.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Education Ministry has refrained from publishing data on the number of students who weren’t coming to class because they had COVID-19 or were exposed to confirmed cases. The reason given was that student data for the new school year had not yet been fully updated. However, the ministry said that about 100,000 students in the eighth through 12th grades in red localities – those with high rates of infection – were studying remotely or outdoors, as the ratio of the students in those classes who are either recovered or vaccinated is less than 70 percent.
According to the newest Health Ministry data, some 144,400 students were absent from class this week – 41,800 because they were sick, and some 102,600 because they were in quarantine. On August 31, the number of schoolchildren who were ill or in quarantine was only 91,000. There were 3,757 teachers absent from school on Thursday, 60 percent of them suffering from COVID.
Information about a sick student is supposed to be passed by the Health Ministry to a unit in the Education Ministry, which is then supposed to notify relevant principals and find out who had been exposed. “In practice, this model has not been functioning these past few days,” said a principal in the center of the country. “No official representative calls us. The parents are the ones reporting [new cases], and when we call the responsible unit, we have to wait on the line for two to three hours just to get a response. We’re collapsing.”
A similar picture emerged from conversations with other principals.
“The health and educational systems aren’t synchronized,” said Morse. “I supported starting the school year on September 1. I thought that it was an important symbolic date for maintaining stability. But you can’t cope with the coronavirus without any preparation and with a complete disconnect between headquarters and the field.”
Sixty elementary school principals in Tel Aviv warned Thursday in a letter to Education Ministry Director General Yigal Slovik of the consequences of the chaos. “The Education Ministry’s coronavirus control center can’t manage the volume of calls, meaning that every principal is forced against his/her will to act as a control center of his own community,” they wrote. “We have no one to consult with on health matters, and we are being required to make health decisions that are not our job or responsibility.”
The principals added, “Providing pedagogical, emotional and social solutions, developing and empowering the educational staff, connection with the community – all these have been shoved aside. We aren’t free to do our jobs properly.”
Ben-David, the teacher’s union chief, wrote to Slovik, saying, “The control center that you’ve set up to management the coronavirus in schools has collapsed, and isn’t giving any help to school principals and preschool teachers.” She accused officials of delaying the appointment of coronavirus coordinator in order to “conserve resources at the principals’ and preschool teachers’ expense.”
Principals are reporting as many as five classes in their schools, particularly in the lowest grades, that have stopped frontal learning. Even more difficult are those classes in which some students are coming to school, while others are staying home, either because they are in quarantine or because “their parents choose not to send them to school, for fear they’ll become infected and send the whole family into quarantine, again,” said a principal from the center. “This means that every day you have to rebuild the schedule for frontal learning and distance learning, and there aren’t enough teachers or resources for this.”
In response to the complaints about long response times at the coronavirus control center, the Education Ministry said the unit “has recruited 170 workers to boost the number of phone lines and provide answers to school principals, and is preparing to recruit additional manpower.”