To Counter Students' Lockdown Atrophy, Israeli Educators Test the Limits of COVID Restrictions

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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A class meeting outside at a Tel Aviv school in November
A class meeting outside at a Tel Aviv school in November. The subjects have no connection to the content of the article.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The principal of a Jerusalem high school had been feeling over the past several days that she no longer had a choice. Although officially schools were not permitted to open due to the coronavirus pandemic, she invited students to come to school to meet with their teachers – outdoors and in small groups.

“We’re seeing the teenagers wither before our very eyes, and we have a responsibility towards them,” said the principal, who didn’t wish to be identified. The decision, she insisted, was in keeping with the recently eased guidelines approved by the cabinet.

Schools have remained closed during the lockdown, but in general, gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed outdoors and five indoors. Many of the country’s principals have been walking a fine line between observing the Health Ministry coronavirus guidelines and the ban on opening schools.

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The coronavirus cabinet voted Tuesday to gradually allow schools to open, beginning on Thursday, but initially only from preschool through Grade 4 and for the most part only in towns with a relatively low incidence of COVID-19.

“In recent weeks we’ve encountered some serious cases – addiction to computer screens, sexual abuse,” a junior high school principal who also wanted to remain anonymous said. “It’s inconceivable that as far as the Education Ministry is concerned, we can’t meet with these students. They should have given us autonomy on a regular basis to bring the 10 percent of pupils who really need it to school.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening. His school is inviting students who are having a variety of difficulties to come to school for private meetings with teachers or for small group meetings outdoors. “You can’t fail to address students in situations of risk for such a long time,” he said. “But we are forced to do so in secret.”

“The Education Ministry is operating strictly by the book and it’s giving us zero flexibility,” said Yoram Haim, the principal of the Sieff high school in Jerusalem. “We should have been allowed to bring these students to school. Not all of them. Just those who really need it.”

He began doing so “in secret, under the table,” as he put it. “When we identify students who stop getting on the Zoom lessons and we feel they’re at risk, we contact them and invite them to physically come to school.” The students are invited to sit in the empty classrooms or in the library, and the special education assistants who are in school in an event (because special education has been exempted from the lockdown) help them connect to Zoom and determine how they are faring.

There are also schools doing such things more openly. Students at the elementary school in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood got together on Tuesday outdoors in small groups in and around the schoolyard. The principal, Shahar Feinstein Gavriel, wrote about it and posted pictures on his Facebook page.

“If it’s possible for 10 kids to meet outside, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be an educator there,” he wrote. “Every passing day is an ongoing emotional, educational and social disaster. We are doing this responsibly. Outdoors. In keeping with the restrictions.”

A student returns to school in November.Credit: Moti Milrod

On Sunday, when lockdown restrictions were eased, an online virtual conference of all of Tel Aviv’s principals was held, initiated by the director of the city’s education department, Shirli Rimon-Bracha. The principals were given the new lockdown guidelines and discussed how they could be translated into face-to-face meetings. For example, the lifting of limitations on traveling more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from home permits students to come to the schoolyard or teachers to meet their students in public spaces in the city. Now that members of the public are again allowed to visit someone else’s home, this has also paved the way for small study groups in homes.

Principals are interpreting the guidelines in ways that permit them to hold actual activities at school, but Haaretz has learned that principals who have publicized the activities have been reprimanded by their superiors at the Education Ministry.

“We’re walking a delicate balance between preserving students’ health and preserving their mental health,” said Einat Geva, the principal of Jaffa’s Ironi Zayin high school. Students will soon begin coming to school for short periods for personal meetings with teachers and to receive their mid-term report cards, she said. There will also be a brief activity in the schoolyard, in small groups and with social distancing.

“Other than for a few weeks of grace, they haven’t been in school for an entire year. [The country’s leadership] accords importance to the matriculation exams. They want to open the economy so they take care of the younger children and no one is talking about the other age levels,” Geva said. If students are permitted to go hiking in nature reserves, there’s no reason they can’t meet their teachers in the schoolyard, she claimed. “If a cosmetician can meet clients one-on-one, why can’t a teacher?”

Not a city initiative

The Tel Aviv municipality said in response that the schools in the city that have organized activities have not done so based a municipal plan but on an individual basis. The municipal education administration has “translated” the Health Ministry guidelines for the entire population into a school context for the principals.

“Every teacher is acting based on their own judgment and prioritizing the group and individual meetings based on the students’ situation. We are pleased that dozens of city schools have responded ... and there are now hundreds of children and teachers studying in public spaces,” the municipality said.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant at a school in Kfar Sava in November.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Similar initiatives have been springing up elsewhere around the country. In the Ramat Negev region in the south, teachers from the regional high school met with their students this week in backyards and on street benches.

“The disadvantage is that it’s a lot of travel time for the teachers, because the students live in various and distant communities,” regional council head Eran Doron said. He admitted that this is isn’t an ideal substitute for regular instruction, but said he believed that face-to-face meetings were important.

At a later stage, Doron acknowledged that he might consider having students meet in the schoolyard or perhaps even in classrooms, even if it contravenes the guidelines.

“We have communities that don’t have a single [COVID-19] patient,” he noted. “Our regional school is small and divided into small classes. There’s no reason why the students can’t come to study. If I thought I was putting the students at risk, I wouldn’t do this.”

“If the government can’t distinguish between crowded schools with a high incidence of disease and locations where it’s possible to run the [school] system, that’s its problem, not ours,” he remarked.

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