Experts Present Safe Way to Reopen Schools. Israel May Not Be Up to the Challenge

Coronavirus research shows children are safer when schools are open, but missteps could make them an infection vector and deepen educational inequalities

Disinfecting a class room in Jerusalem in June
Disinfecting a class room in Jerusalem in JuneCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Experts in Israel, like the authors of official reports by many international organizations, agree that children will suffer more from the closure of schools than from exposure to coronavirus in the classroom.

According to a report issued by the World Health Organization before the start of the school year, beyond learning opportunities, schools provide nutritional, health and welfare support, especially for children from lower income families. School closures also affect poorer children by increasing the gaps between them and their better-off classmates.

According to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, head of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, the dilemma touches on “the broader significance of learning for children, including their psychological and social development.”

The case of the Gymnasia Rehavia High School in Jerusalem, where dozens of students, staff and family members were infected, shows that schools could become the site of major outbreaks. However, experts say the symptoms of the disease seem less severe among children. Children up to the age of four or five are less infectious, and become infected less than older children. One explanation is that inborn immune system - specifically the one that fights off invaders – is stronger in younger children and weakens as they grow.

It is also clear that the coronavirus occurs much less frequently among children younger than nine compared to their percentage in the population, although the rate of asymptomatic children might be greater than that of adults. Israel’s Coronavirus National Information Center says that data so far indicates that though children under 9 years of age are less infectious, children over the age of 10 are just as infectious as adults.

Among teenagers, however, infection rates are close to that of their percentage in the population, though this is also because they are less careful. This tendency is most common among people in their 20s, according to Prof. Ora Paltiel, of the Hebrew University’s School of Public Health and Hadassah University Hospital, who says this age group is apparently a major spreader of the virus.

According to a document issued by the European Center for Disease Protection and Control, children can infect their families at home, and this route of infection may be more common than infection between adults. The center says there are few cases where schools had a significant outbreak. Studies show that adults at schools infect one another depending on their role, in a manner similar to other workplaces.

Prof. Davidovitch says that findings in Israel concur with these studies – in 90 percent of the cases in which a child has been identified as positive for the virus in a school setting and contact tracing was done, it was found that the child infected at most three other children.

Epidemiological studies also reveal an optimistic picture in this respect. Studies in Ireland, Holland and Denmark did not show a rise in infection after schools reopened. In countries where elementary schools did not close at all, like in Sweden and Ireland, no clear evidence was found that this contributed to the spread of the virus. An exception to this was in Wuhan and other cities in China, where it was found that closing the schools reduced infection. However, it is difficult to differentiate the impact of school closures as opposed to other factors.

According to international experts there is urgent need to establish a system to oversee schools to ensure that rules are followed. “We can’t do what we did in May, acting like everything is normal, because then the schools will close, and we will have achieved nothing,” Paltiel says.

Students entering a high school in Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“It was a big mistake that we did not have such a system in May, when the government decided to close every school when a single case was discovered,” Davidovitch says. According to Paltiel, schools should not be in a hurry to close if one case is found, because the source of the infection likely came from outside the school, a finding confirmed in international studies.

Despite the high rate of infection in Israel and the impending opening of the schools, Davidovitch is optimistic that the proper system can be up and running in time. Along with Prof. Uri Alon of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, he has developed a model, based on the behavior of the virus to allow more students, even in the upper grades, to attend school – in “capsules” of one week learning in school and one week at home. So if in a certain week an infection starts among students in school, most of those infected will develop symptoms during the week they are at home and only healthy students will return to school the following week.

In closed rooms, masks should be worn even by small children in grades 1 and 2, Davidovitch said, and distance should be maintained on buses and not only in the classroom.

“Activities connected with the mouth such as eating, talking, singing, shouting, in a closed space is a significant cause of infection,” says Paltiel, “Ventilation is very important, as is low density.”

The education system in Israel can’t complain of under-funding, but it seems that years of mediocre management and turnover of ministers and discrimination against certain populations have placed the system at a poor starting point to handle this crisis.

Prof. Yossi Dahan, a member of a forum of experts dealing with the crisis said poorer districts, especially in the Arab and Bedouin communities, are not prepared for distance learning, as they lack computers and internet connection, and a pledge by Education Minister Yoav Galant to provide 150,000 computers will only be fulfilled in June 2021.

Dr. Sarab Abu Rabia-Queder of Ben-Gurion University, also in the forum, said 55,000 children in unrecognized Bedouin villages have no internet access, and children will simply drop out of school due to the crisis. “There is inherent social blindness here. The Education Ministry should have woken up and dealt with it six months ago,” she said.

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