Israeli School Year Begins for Over 2 Million Students as Coronavirus Rages

The Israel Teachers Union has yet come to an agreement with the government on arrangements for teachers at high risk, and the threat of a strike continues to loom in the background

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Preparing to open the school year in Rishon Letzion, August 31, 2020.
Preparing to open the school year in Rishon Letzion, August 31, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

The new school year opened on Tuesday, September 1 as planned – after the Israel Teachers Union, which represents preschool and elementary school teachers, announced that its members would not go on strike on the first day of school.

The union came to an agreement with the Education Ministry regarding arrangements for teachers who are at high risk if they contract the coronavirus, avoiding the threatened strike.

Israel’s schools will be attended by 2.4 million students this year, an increase of roughly 50,000 over the 2019-2020 school year. The schools employ 5,186 principals, 179,000 teachers and 20,600 preschool teachers.

>> As infection rate runs high, Israel takes no small gamble to open schools | Analysis

Who will be required to wear a mask?

Children from 2nd grade and up will be required to wear masks in public areas of their school and during recess, but not in the classroom. From 4th grade and up, students are required to wear masks in class as well – with the exception of physical education classes. Teachers are not required to wear masks while they are teaching.

What will the school day in preschool and elementary school look like?

Special education instruction will operate as it has in the past, as will preschools. For the most part, 1st and 2nd grade classes will remain unchanged, although in some locations, students will only attend school five days a week, rather than the usual six, to provide classroom space to students in higher grades on Fridays.

Third and 4th graders will be physically present in school at least five days a week, in smaller groups of up to 18 children – and under special circumstances, up to 20. The Education Ministry has recruited thousands of teaching assistants for these split classes.

Fifth and 6th graders will be physically in school, as opposed to at-home instruction through distance learning, at least twice a week in small groups. Many local governments are making efforts to increase the number of days 5th and 6th graders spend in school by using of other public buildings, such as community centers – but the Israel Teachers’ Union has said it opposes holding classes off the school premises due to concern regarding the teachers’ liability for personal injury or property damage.

What will distance learning look like?

Students from 5th grade and up will study remotely, meaning generally from home, up to three days a week. The Education Ministry has said that about 150,000 more computers are needed in students’ homes – mostly in Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities as well as for students from poor families. The Education Ministry has only recently begun the process of purchasing the new computers and has acknowledged that only half of the necessary computers will be purchased and distributed by the end of 2020. The others will be available during the second half of the school year.

What will the arrangements be in junior high and high school?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, junior high and high school students will be divided into small groups of up to 18 students. Their schedules will permit their attendance at up to five different groups – for classes in various subjects or at different levels. And teachers will be allowed to teach no more than five different groups, to minimize their exposure.

Principals have told Haaretz that, when it comes to students at risk in special programs, an effort is being made to structure schedules to maximize the number of days of the week that they are in school.

Arrangements will vary somewhat from school to school. One school in the south has decided to hold classes in the students’ regular classrooms, but the number of students attending class at any given time will be restricted so that the maximum class size is not exceeded. Another school decided that classes in compulsory subjects – English, math and language – would only be held through distance learning arrangements such as teleconferencing, so that students can make best use of their limited time in the school building for other subjects and for social activities.

What will the first day of school be like in preschool and 1st grade?

Until Sunday, the Health Ministry was refusing to allow parents to enter school buildings, in an effort to minimize the risk posed by the coronavirus. The Education Ministry had told parents that they would be required to remain outside in the schoolyard, despite the new experience that entering 1st graders and some preschoolers would be having in attending school.

The Ben-Gurion school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion.Credit: Moti Milrod

On Sunday, however, the Health Ministry said it would permit parents to enter school buildings and classrooms in groups of up to six parents at a time, permitting the parents to each be present in class for a short period.

How will matriculation exams be held for high school students?

Matriculation exams are expected to be held as usual, but in fewer subjects. They include the three compulsory subjects – math, English and the student’s language of instruction (either Hebrew or Arabic); two subjects in the humanities selected by the school from among four options – literature, Bible, history and civics; and an exam in one major subject chosen by the student. Testing on other subjects will be carried out using exams prepared by the school, as opposed to the regular matriculation exams, which are standardized throughout the country. There will be 10 to 30 percent less material than usual covered in the matriculation exams.

What arrangements will be made for teachers who are medically at high risk?

At this point, there are no set arrangements, and the education and finance ministries suggest that each case be handled individually by school principals to minimize these teachers’ contact with students and to make maximum use of distance learning. At preschool, where distance learning is not an option, and when it comes to other high-risk teachers who don’t come to an agreement regarding their arrangements, the government proposed that they take a leave of absence without pay.

After the Israel Teachers Union threatened to go on strike over the issue, the government proposed that the period of leave without pay be set at two months, during which criteria would be developed determining who is officially deemed at risk. These teachers would then be entitled to special benefits in addition to unemployment compensation. The government and union have not yet come to an agreement on the issue, however.

What happens if someone in school is confirmed as a carrier of the coronavirus?

The grade level affected – or the entire building in the case of preschools – will be shut down until contact tracing is complete, after which it will be decided who needs to go into quarantine and who can return to school.

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