Ultra-Orthodox boys’ schools began the new school year on Monday with the return to class of more than 200,000 students, including older married students. Classes at most of the country’s schools only start on September 1, making the early return of the Haredi students a major test case of how schools can conduct themselves amid the recent surge in coronavirus cases – the country’s fourth wave of the pandemic.
The impact of the resumption of class will be apparent in about two weeks, when it will be possible to gauge whether it has resulted in a jump in COVID-19 cases in the ultra-Orthodox community. So far in the current wave of infection, the Haredi community has had the lowest incidence of the virus of any segment of Israeli society – in contrast to prior waves, when the community had the highest rates of infection.
Nevertheless, the Haredi community has just experienced a rise in cases from 5 percent to 10 percent of all COVID cases (but still slightly under the community’s proportion of the population). A pilot program run through the army’s Home Front Command was also launched Monday, conducting antibody blood-testing of students from ultra-Orthodox elementary schools for boys (Talmudei Torah) off the school premises. But Haredi authorities expressed opposition to the approach, saying that rather than testing the students elsewhere, it should be done at the schools to get a more accurate picture and to permit classes to be held for as many students as possible.
“The government has quickly rushed into a testing model but doesn’t know how to implement it on the ground,” a senior municipal official in the largely ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak told Haaretz. “They’ve said, ‘We’ll see what happens at Haredi schools and then we’ll know what to do with secular education.’ But we’ve said that testing outside of a school won’t provide an accurate picture and is useless.”
According to a number of ultra-Orthodox officials, only a small portion of the students will go off-site for testing. In the event that a student in a class is found to be infected, most of his classmates will have to go into quarantine, which will bring classroom studies to a halt, they claimed.
Following discussions with representatives of the Home Front Command, Haredi officials decided to give their approval in principle to testing on site in the schools and are now awaiting final approval.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has taken the view that such testing should not take place on school premises, one official said, but noted that vaccinations are being given in the schools.
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“We’ve started registration for vaccinations on site for grades 7 and 8 at Talmud Torah schools. That’s the decision of the school principal,” he said, and the vaccinations are being administered on the premises by Magen David Adom emergency medical service personnel. “A large portion of the students have already been vaccinated, but there are institutions that are now requesting the vaccinations in an organized fashion.”
One Talmud Torah principal told Haaretz that many principals are furious with the Education Ministry and that he personally was having difficulty seeing how the program could be implemented. “We have hundreds of students who began class outdoors in the sun because they had no classroom,” he remarked, suggesting that the education minister deal with that problem first and only after that is resolved make demands regarding testing.
As is largely true among other segments of Israeli society, on the Haredi street there is lax compliance at the moment with the requirements regarding wearing masks and social distancing. That includes most synagogues and schools in the Haredi community. There have also recently been huge Haredi community events, some organized by government authorities, with thousands of people indoors for considerable periods without masks and in violation of regulations.
Perhaps the greatest test will not be at Talmudei Torah but rather at Haredi yeshivas, which were major hotbeds of infection in the prior waves of the pandemic. “At my son’s yeshiva, we were told that the boy needed to be vaccinated and that they would not start school without it,” one senior officials said. “They didn’t require it of us but led us to understand that it was worth our getting vaccinated.”
A number of Haredi officials said that class at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas will provide the ultimate test of the vaccines and the delta variant, as the students at the yeshivas include large numbers of students who have been vaccinated and large numbers who have recovered from the virus. In recent months, the heads of the yeshivas have been sending their students to get vaccinated in an effort to avoid the major disruption of the classroom pods and lockdowns of prior waves of the virus.