Israel's Remote Schooling Baffles Teachers, Parents

Only after a month of coronavirus closure did the Education Ministry publish guidelines for remote learning, but many questions remain, including how teachers will be paid

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Neta (right) and Shachar Boim-Fein during distance learning at their home in Jerusalem, April 19, 2020.
Neta (right) and Shachar Boim-Fein during distance learning at their home in Jerusalem, April 19, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Or, a second-grade homeroom teacher in Tel Aviv, was sitting for hours Sunday in front of a blank page on her computer screen. She was trying to draw up a curriculum for the coming weeks for her class, but didn’t know where to start. Or’s difficulty stems from the confusing situation she finds herself in due to the coronavirus crisis, together with other teachers.

Only at the end of last week – a full month after schools in Israel were closed – did the Education Ministry publish an outline for remote schooling, one that imposes a tight daily agenda that isn’t necessarily appropriate for young pupils. The outline looks like an attempt to replicate the school day in a home learning format – a morning encounter at which attendance is taken, a list of assignments for the day, recesses of only 10 minutes each and a summary meeting at the end with the homeroom teacher.

At first the outline was presented as compulsory. But on Sunday, following a lot of public criticism, primarily from parents, the ministry backtracked. Education Minister Rafi Peretz wrote on his Facebook page that the outline distributed to teachers and principals “constitutes standardization” and isn’t mandatory. “There’s nothing here that’s mandatory,” he said. “We’ve built many tools and every principal and teacher decides how he wants to use these tools.”

Peretz’s associates blamed some of the system’s inspectors for interpreting the curricula stringently and telling teachers they would enforce the schedule that appears there. Many schools at first were also making demands, telling pupils that attendance at Zoom classes was mandatory. “Attendance will be checked at every lesson,” wrote a principal from the south. “A pupil who isn’t present will have an absence marked, and it could lower your grade!” Another school told parents that if a child constantly misses Zoom lessons, it would send a truancy officer to the home to find out why.

Children of the Boim-Fein family, at their home in Jerusalem April 19, 2020.

But even now, after the latest (and not necessarily last) zigzag, teachers remain confused. “It’s not entirely clear what the Education Ministry is basing its decisions on,” said Or. “Is parental pressure what’s decisive? Pressure from the treasury?” Whichever it is, she’s convinced that decisions are being made “to serve interests, and not out of any understanding of the teachers and pupils.”

Even before the ministry released its program, teachers and principals believed that the ministry’s behavior was aimed at exploiting the situation to restore its control over the scope of teachers’ work and the way they teach, at the expense of the flexibility and creativity demanded by the current situation.

Z., a junior high school teacher in the center of the country, said “the ministry isn’t consulting with the field.” Noting that her partner is an army officer, she said “in the army, before a discussion with the chief of general staff, the whole system prepares itself, consults with all the ranks and brings suggestions to the General Staff. The Education Ministry doesn’t have a management chain, but a staff that makes decisions and a field that is hardly consulted. The gap is considerable. The ministry’s behavior is beneath criticism.”

Parental frustration

Tzachi Boim-Fein and his son Neta, at their home in Jerusalem, April 19, 2020.

A lack of consideration, or simply a lack of thought, was pointed out by several parents, especially those in kindergarten and the lower grades. They note the enormous gap between the plan – a full day of studies that begins at 8:30 and ends in the afternoon – and the ability of young children to concentrate, and the fact that any computer-related activity for young children requires parental involvement. “On what planet can kids connect on their own to meetings and ‘study content’ and let themselves out for a ‘food break?’” asked the father of a preschool-age boy.

Other parents complained that the outline requires children to work long hours on the computer, while most homes have only one computer. “I don’t have four computers for four kids, and we’re not a needy family,” says Elite Raphael, of Givatayim, who has elementary, junior high and high school-age children. “I also don’t have internet at home that can handle four Zoom lessons at once. All these lessons should be optional and recorded, so they can be watched throughout the day.”

The difficulty faced by parents like Raphael are dwarfed by those of parents in the Arab communities where the internet infrastructure is unreliable and many households don’t have computers at all. The Education Ministry noted that all the educational content can also be accessed with smartphones. But, as Or says, the whole remote learning paradigm isn’t really appropriate for younger children, because there are technical problems and because many young pupils (“fortunately,” she says) still don’t have smartphones.

Meanwhile, parental frustration, notes Or, is being let out on the teachers. “This was a brilliant move by the state; they’ve diverted people’s anger from the decision makers and transferred it to the teachers.

Hadi family kids, yesterday in their home in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.

“The ministry is trying to put on a show of learning and impose it on a system that even in routine times has plenty of difficulties and failings,” Or adds. “It isn’t always clear what the purpose of these encounters is. Emotional? Educational? To free up parents so they can work?” She doesn’t have children, but her colleagues were infuriated at having to be present on the computer at consistent times. “Most of them have their own children … they are very happy to prepare educational material but to teach [on a schedule] on the computer is impossible for them,” she says.

Schools, she says, are not being consistent in their response to the Education Ministry directives. Some principals ordered teachers to conduct four or five Zoom encounters per day; others said one in the morning and one at the end of the day was sufficient, while others said that one a day was sufficient. “The response to the teachers’ difficulties has varied,” says Or. “Sometimes they said, ‘whatever you do will be fine,’ while in other places they are threatening to put anyone who doesn’t follow the guidelines on unpaid leave.”

Teachers’ pay

A Ramat Gan Elementary School, last month.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

This leads to another issue about which there is considerable confusion: Whether and how teachers are going to be paid for their work during this period. At Sunday’s cabinet meeting it was decided that teachers would be paid in full for the days of remote teaching, but they will have to give back at least 50 percent of the days during summer vacation. According to the resolution, which was formulated by the treasury, high school teachers teaching now will have to give back at least half a day for each day of remote schooling; the exact amount would be determined in negotiations with the Teachers Union, but the treasury is pushing to have elementary school teachers give back an even greater number of days during the summer, while preschool teachers will have to give back the most.

This decision was made against the judgment of the Education Ministry, which wanted to convey the message that teachers are working full-time now regardless of what age group they are teaching and negotiations on how many days to give back would take place later. The ministry is striving to get this clause of the cabinet resolution changed.

“This has put us in a very confusing position,” says Or. “They told us that we have to work, even if it hurts you and your families, and we’ll decide later on if you’ll get paid or not. That’s an inconceivable undercutting of the teacher’s status and the most basic respect for us.” Now, she says, she’s trying to balance between her desire to respond to her pupils’ needs and the fact that she apparently won’t be fully paid for her work. “It’s important for me to know that I’m not doing something under pressure and threats, but because it’s right for my pupils.”

So where do we go from here? Like much of what the Education Ministry has been doing during the coronavirus crisis, the most precise answer is that it’s not clear. The Education Ministry isn’t rushing to tell the teachers to reduce their teaching load now and says that the remote learning plan remains in force. The Teachers Union is also backing the ministry’s plan, with the aim of getting full pay for the teachers for all the days of remte teaching and reducing as much as possible the number of days teachers will have to give back during the summer. “We will not let the treasury or vested interests undermine the remote schooling in order to steal teachers’ vacation time from them,” the union said.

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