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What’s Missing From the Education Ministry's Pandemic Plan? How Children Learn

Remote learning is the star of the state’s program for the new school year, but heavy reliance on it will likely deepen achievement gaps

Or Kashti
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Pupils are shown how to maintain social distancing, upon return to school after the COVID-19 lockdown, at Hashalom elementary in Mevaseret Zion, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.
Pupils are shown how to maintain social distancing, upon return to school after the COVID-19 lockdown, at Hashalom elementary in Mevaseret Zion, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.Credit: AFP
Or Kashti

Less than two weeks before the start of the school year, the Education Ministry has still not said anything about the most important thing that can and should be said to the 2.4 million students and their parents, along with the 200,000 teachers: On September 1, the teachers need to see their students.

See, not just teach, monitor or keep busy. This all-important pedagogic goal, which is even more critical than usual in this school year, which will open in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, is hard to find amidst the plans, rules and regulations the Education Ministry has released so far. It is not just that all the noise has done nothing to comfort educators – but the essentially technical nature of this flood of information has highlighted what is missing: a human approach, preferably honest and direct, to the chaotic situation. Inspiration is a rare commodity, especially in the Education Ministry.

Classes were dismissed in the middle of March, and they restarted – only partially and haltingly – for a few weeks, just in time to end for the summer vacation. They are supposed to begin again on September 1. The exact formula is still expected to undergo various changes and pressures, until the very last minute, and then after that too – for about three weeks, until the vacation for the Jewish holiday period begins. Under such instability, the Education Ministry should have devoted most of its resources and energy on the emotional, educational and health aspects of the students and staff. Instead it chose to focus on automatic routines, based on a world before the coronavirus: curricula, teachers’ job descriptions, class timetables, physical buildings where school takes place. Forget about testing and measurement. 

For example, take the high school matriculation exams, know as bagrut in Hebrew. On Monday, the Education Ministry announced that this year the exams would be held in only six subjects, instead of seven or more. The tests will be conducted in three required subjects: Mathematics, English and native language (Hebrew or Arabic); two other subjects from the humanities, chosen by the school (literature, Bible, history or civics); and one advanced subject of the student’s choice. If only five matriculation exams were conducted during the last school year, only the end of which was cut short because of the pandemic, why would high school students, who will be in school only two days a week, require six tests?

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

A few weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the coronavirus crisis had managed in shaking up even the fundamental conservatism of the Education Ministry. Now it seems that this was a temporary upheaval.

According to the plan announced about 10 days ago, students in junior high and high schools will attend school “at least” two days a week. We need to say this as clearly as possible: The term “at least” prepares the ground for large inequality in the educational system, between well-off local governments that have done everything possible over the past few weeks to prepare as many spaces as possible for additional classrooms in community centers and other city buildings, and those local governments that lack such infrastructure. The former will enable their students to come to school three or four times a week, while the latter will make do with the minimum approved by the ministry.

The same goes for remote learning: About 20 percent of students do not have a computer at home, and it is not all clear when – if ever – the computers the Education Ministry plans to buy will arrive. Everyone knows what characterizes these children. The damage to the socioeconomic and geographic periphery of Israel will be even worse because of the freezing of the enrichment programs and other projects offering a second – and sometimes last – chance to these students. For some of these programs, even if the money is found for them at the last moment, the damage will be almost irreversible.

This inequality will be felt not just in high schools, but also in junior high schools. At the critical stages of seventh and eighth grades, where the process of dropping out sometimes begins unseen, it is especially important for the teachers to see the students. A true interaction with the teachers is a critical component, which requires major planning, training and investment. Maybe that is why we have not yet heard anything about it from the Education Ministry.

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

Zoom, the hero of the last year, is not an educational tool. At best, it can serve as a means of passing on messages or holding a small group discussion, maybe of up to eight students. Beyond that, it loses its effectiveness. The new reality cries out for a different form of learning, based on investigation and projects – history in the city park, literature in the library, civics on the streets – there is no shortage of examples.

A different Education Ministry, one that is not paralyzed by the legacy of the past, but wants to reinvent itself – would have spent the past few months developing a different form of learning. We (almost) don’t need to invent anything: Such learning already exists on the creative margins of the educational system. The urgent mission of the leadership of the Education Ministry is to move it into the center of its activities – and enable teachers to perform the miracle called education.

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