Israel Shuts Schools on Thursday, a Day Ahead of National Lockdown, Angering Parents

Netanyahu, health minister vote to shut schools, while education minister opposes move ■ Parents say government decisions change constantly

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An adult accompanies a schoolchild in Jerusalem on the first day of school, September 1, 2020.
An adult accompanies a schoolchild in Jerusalem on the first day of school, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Because of the spike in infection rates, the cabinet decided in a phone vote to shut down all schools beginning Thursday, even though the lockdown begins only on Friday.

The cabinet thereby accepted the recommendation made by the Health Ministry and coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu. The school closure will include kindergartens and nursery schools, but exclude institutions catering to children with special needs, as well as allowing for a few other exceptions.

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The daily report issued Wednesday by the research center for combating the coronavirus indicated a significant rise in infection rates among 14-to-19-year-olds, apparently stemming from the opening of schools.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish told Kan Bet public radio Wednesday, “You shouldn’t expect a significant decrease in infection rates” following Israel’s three-week lockdown, set to go into effect on Friday. “I’m starting to worry,” he said, adding that this lockdown “won’t be like the lockdown we know,” but instead would limit commerce, entertainment and leisure activities.

According to Kish, those who want to defy lockdown orders “will find an excuse” to do so, and the main goal of it is to prevent a renewed surge during the Jewish High Holy Days.

The government’s decision evoked much criticism among parents. “Each day with no school is one more day in which children are cut off from a framework they were just getting used to,” said Shachar, a mother to a first-grader in the Tel Aviv area, told Haaretz. “Decisions change from moment to moment. I don’t have to suffer from the government’s indecisiveness. We’re being played like yo-yos,” she said. “How can parents get ready from one day to the next?” wrote another mother on a Facebook group.

Another one wrote: “They’ve driven us crazy, it’s a disgrace.” Other parents protested the inequality in the lockdown regulations. “They’re only closing schools,” wrote one mother. “Everything else is excluded. It’s even permitted to demonstrate.”

A national organization of parents of kindergarten children called for a boycott of remote learning during the lockdown, and asking for extra school days later this year. In its announcement, the organization wrote that remote learning is unfeasible, since not all kindergarten children or their teachers have computers. The organization adds that with online learning, “preschool children cannot enjoy social and emotional connections and parents cannot work. They therefore choose not to use the Zoom option.”

Before the cabinet’s phone vote on the school closures, there was a heated debate on the cabinet ministers’ WhatsApp group, given the demand to bring the issue to an orderly cabinet meeting. However, given the urgency of the matter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a vote by phone. Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein voted for an early closure, with Education Minister Yoav Gallant opposing it, saying most infections occur at home, not in schools.

Before the vote, the Education Ministry’s legal adviser sent a letter to the cabinet secretary, stating that Gallant was opposed to closing schools on Thursday. “The data held by the ministry shows that infection rates among pupils are lower than their relative proportion among the general population, which makes it unnecessary to immediately shut down the system,” said the letter.

The adviser, Eilat Melkman, added that “the change in the government’s decision, two days after it was made, shutting down only one day earlier than planned, with a switch to remote learning for three weeks, will cause great inconvenience to parents. Many of them will in any case be unable to go to work during those weeks. This will impact public trust in the government, which will be seen as behaving erratically.”

On Monday, Gamzu appealed to Gallant and Edelstein to urgently close schools in grade 5 and higher, before the onset of the lockdown. Gamzu had recommended this a few days earlier, but the government rejected his request. Gamzu said that “the government made a wrong decision, counter to our professional recommendation. We’re convinced that the spike in infection rates is due to higher infections among schoolchildren, particularly age 10 and above.”

As of Wednesday evening, government had not yet given its lockdown guidelines to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for its approval. The committee is slated to meet Thursday morning to discuss the lockdown.

Meanwhile, the inundation of hospitals in the north with coronavirus patients has led Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva to open an emergency underground ward that will immediately take in 40 patients being transferred from northern hospitals. The complex includes four ICU units for coronavirus patients.

Also, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City will be shut for three weeks starting Friday, the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust responsible for it, announced. A Waqf official said the decision was made due to the continuing increase in the number of coronavirus cases in general and in the Jerusalem area in particular, including among worshipers.

With reporting by Jonathan Lis, Bar Peleg and Jack Khoury.

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