Officials Offer Conflicting Information on Whether Israeli Preschools Can Open Next Week

From March through the end of September, 5,650 children under the age of 3 who attended day care caught the coronavirus

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A kindergarten the day before reopening following the coronavirus outbreak, Tel Aviv, May 7, 2020.
A kindergarten the day before reopening following the coronavirus outbreak, Tel Aviv, May 7, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Health Ministry officials are contradicting each other on whether preschools and day care centers will be able to open this Sunday.

The ministry’s deputy director general, Prof. Itamar Grotto, said on Monday that they could. But its director of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said on Sunday and again on Monday that they could not.

“Our unequivocal intention, as both the ministry’s director general and the health minister have said explicitly, is that we intend to open preschools for ages 0 to 6 on Sunday, unless something unexpected happens with morbidity and we don’t meet the targets we set,” Grotto said in an interview with Army Radio, referring to incidence of the coronavirus.

He added that he believes Israel is on track to meet those targets, and that the schools are prepared to reopen with only “minor adjustments.”

The coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, also said Monday that “preschools are less dangerous than the rest of the school system” and could therefore reopen this coming Sunday.

Coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, during a Knesset committee meeting, Jerusalem, September 16, 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman/Knesset

But a day earlier, Alroy-Preis had said the country wasn’t yet meeting the numerical targets set for the first stage of exiting the lockdown, “and that’s the principle – movement based on measures of morbidity, not based on dates.”

Specifically, she said, the infection coefficient currently stands at around 1 rather than the target of 0.8, meaning each patient infects another 0.8 people. The ministry’s other target is no more than 2,000 new patients a day.

On Monday, asked about the contradiction between her remarks and Grotto’s, Alroy-Preis said, “We’ll begin the first stage, including the preschools, when we meet the morbidity targets. If you ask me today whether we’ll meet those morbidity targets, I don’t know how to answer. But as to the very direct question of whether preschools will reopen on Sunday? At the moment, no, because we haven’t met the morbidity targets.

“What Prof. Grotto said was that he believes we’ll meet them by Sunday,” she added. “Therefore, there’s really no contradiction.”

Grotto was also asked in the interview about the minuscule number of tickets issued for violating the regulations concerning prayer services during the lockdown. “I think that regarding prayers, most of the public complied well,” he answered. “I’m currently more worried about the reopening of schools, yeshiva high schools and the younger grades.”

Dr. Deena Zimmerman, head of the ministry’s department for maternal and pediatric health, told the Knesset on Monday that from March through the end of September, 5,650 children under the age of 3 who attended day care caught the coronavirus.

“It’s impossible to say there’s no infection at this age,” she told a joint session of the Coronavirus Committee and the Committee for the Rights of the Child. “Children can get infected, and they can infect others.”

Hagai Porges, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry official in charge of day care centers, said that the method for reopening preschools and day cares would be the same as it was after the first lockdown. “Our impression is that this worked well,” he added.

Grotto, both in the radio interview and at the Knesset meeting, said the Health Ministry doesn’t plan to significantly alter the model for reopening schools, either. “But that model failed,” retorted Knesset Education Committee Chairman Ram Shefa, who also sits on the Committee for the Rights of the Child.

Grotto responded that the main problem was the movement of teachers between different classes, which the ministry wants to reduce as much as possible. “That’s the main change we’re demanding,” he said, adding that schools wouldn’t reopen at all in cities with a high incidence of the virus.

A teacher cleans toys to prepare for reopening at a preschool in Jerusalem, May 6, 2020.

The Education Ministry’s representative at the meeting, Inna Zaltsman, did not respond to Shefa’s questions as to how her ministry planned to improve the schools’ model for reopening and what lessons it had learned from the schools’ closure three weeks ago.

Grotto acknowledged that reopening school for grades five through 12 was “more dangerous” than allowing the younger grades to return.

But Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit of Hebrew University told the committee that students who have the coronavirus actually infect relatively few of their classmates. Data collected by Jerusalem’s education department from contact tracing at the schools under its auspices founded that each student infected only 0.5 to 1.8 percent of the other students in their grade, she said.

Like Grotto, she said the real problem is teachers who move from class to class rather than remaining with specific groups of students. That significantly increases the number of students who have to be quarantined if an infection occurs, she noted.

Hagit Pe’er, who heads the Na’amat women’s organization, the country’s biggest operator of day care centers, complained to the committee that she can’t get a straight answer out of the Health Ministry. “We continue to get conflicting messages about opening day care centers on Sunday,” she said. “And as of this moment, nobody has shown us a plan for reopening.”

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