230 Israeli Students, Staff Catch Coronavirus In First Week of School, Thousands Quarantined

Health Ministry reports that 4,360 pupils and 720 school staff currently in isolation, refuses to cancel capsule system in classes

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An empty classroom in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020.
An empty classroom in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Health Ministry presented figures on Monday revealing that 172 pupils and 62 school staffers have been diagnosed with coronavirus since the school year began on September 1.

Ministry representatives presented the data at a Knesset Education Committee session, while the Education Ministry remains unwilling to release its data on the number of infections as its monitoring of cases in the schools is not yet complete.

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According to the Health Ministry, 4,630 and 720 school staff are currently in isolation. The number of new cases in the “red” localities stands at about 70, with similar numbers in the orange and yellow localities. Green localities, where the infection rate is lowest, have seen only six new confirmed cases since the school year began.

At the hearing, the committee discussed the Education Ministry’s decision to divide 3rd and 4th grade classes into small groups of 18 students to limit the risk of infection. Committee chairman MK Ram Shefa (Kahol Lavan) announced two days ago that he would seek to cancel the capsule plan for these grades, saying the committee has not been shown any data proving that children in these grades have a higher rate of infection than 1st and 2nd graders, who attend school in the regular manner.

The division into smaller groups creates a shortage of classrooms and thus forces 5th and 6th graders to study from home a larger part of the time. Shefa says this is exacerbating the disparities in the education system.

At the session, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public health services, voiced strong opposition to the cancellation of the capsule plan. While admitting that “it’s not like God told me to draw the line at 3rd grade,” she insisted that the decision to use the capsule system from 3rd grade onward made sense because the risk of infection increases with age.

She also said that even if it were possible to consider cancelling the capsule plan, this is not the time to do so. “When you have talk of draconian measures of restricting movement and meanwhile are talking about canceling the capsules, it sends the public a confusing message.”

Health Ministry officials also presented data about the infection rate among pupils in the Haredi schools and yeshivas, which opened on August 21. They show that 10 days after school began, the infection rate jumped among pupils age 10-19 – from an average of 100 a day to more than 500 a day last week. In the past week, 254 students from yeshivas and kollels (a yeshiva for married men) tested positive; 844 are now in isolation. All these cases were found in red, orange or yellow localities.

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