Defying Cabinet, Israel's Local Governments Devise Their Own Solutions for Opening Schools

Cabinet decision angers parents, teachers and the heads of local authorities as 'the ones in most need' aren't returning to full studies

A first grader walks to school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020.
A first grader walks to school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The coronavirus cabinet’s decision to open schools for half the week to first and second graders starting next Sunday, with groups studying on alternate days, was made despite a suggestion by the Federation of Local Authorities that would have enabled opening schools for the entire week. However, several local governments have taken their own initiative and will hold classes all week under a different plan.

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The Education Ministry claimed that a full return of first and second graders is not possible because of the Health Ministry’s position, which stipulates that all lower grades should study in capsules – in contrast to what happened earlier this year, when only third and fourth graders studied in capsules. This requires the enlistment of 13,000 teachers and other support staff to teach the divided classes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified on Monday that no budget would be allocated for recruiting more teachers to would allow classes to be held all week. The Education Ministry says preparations for the new plan could take five weeks.

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The cabinet decision managed to anger parents, teachers and the heads of local authorities. “How can anyone envisage all children, from age zero to fourth grade, returning to full studies except the ones in most need, first and second graders?” wondered a participant in a Facebook page for parents and schoolchildren. “Half a week is a pathetic joke, it doesn’t allow true, continuous learning,” said members of the national Parents’ Association. “I’ve stopped getting angry,” a primary school principal told Haaretz. “I’m not creating a schedule for now, I’ve done this seven times this year, that’s enough. Let’s see what the final decision is, and then we’ll give pupils the maximum we can offer.”

Even without budgets and additional manpower, it would have been possible to return first and second graders to a full week of studies. The Federation of Local Authorities, backed by the treasury, tried to promote a plan by which the Education Ministry would grant autonomy to mayors and local council heads, so that each one of these could divide up class hours as they saw fit. For example, a city could decide that third and fourth graders would study half a week, with younger pupils attending school all week, in small groups, supported by extra teachers whom the Education Ministry recruited earlier this year. Another possibility is to reduce the number of weekly hours (perhaps shutting down on Fridays), which would enable a more equitable distribution of hours between classes.

An empty elementary school classroom as Israel closed schools for nationwide lockdown, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 17, 2020.Credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner

For reasons that are still unclear, this proposal was rejected. Associates of Education Minister Yoav Gallant said it was done due to “pedagogic considerations,” since teaching first and second grade requires teachers trained specifically to teach those grades.

Yet this argument does not accord with the facts: Pupils can study part of the time with the trained teachers and part of the time have freer activities, supervised by supporting teachers recruited by the ministry. Moreover, sources said the pedagogic argument never came up in earlier discussions the Education Ministry held with the Health Ministry and treasury, ahead of the cabinet meeting.

“It’s not clear how the coronavirus cabinet and the prime minister, who know that local authorities can implement this plan better, with capsules and five days of school a week, chose a solution that is no solution,” said Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities.

A primary school principal expressed her frustration with the strict plan, which does not enable giving special attention to the younger children who desperately need it. “They keep talking about autonomy,” she told Haaretz, “but ultimately don’t allow it.”

However, several heads of local authorities decided not to wait for a different decision, saying they’d open schools using a creative plan. “We’re operating according to the needs of our communities,” says Ofira Biton, head of the education division in the Shoham local council. The council devised a plan that enables a full return to classes of first to fourth graders, for five days a week. The smaller groups will be taught alternately be permanent teachers and the ones recruited by the Education Ministry, as well as by city employees from the youth and welfare departments, as well as by students required to do volunteer work in exchange for stipends.

An empty classroom in a closed primary school in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 15, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

“Principals are now working hard to organize schedules,” says Biton. “They need to be creative, taking into account different plans and regulations. But we believe it’s possible, providing the best solution for our city.”

Has the Education Ministry backed this plan? Biton says she updated the ministry’s supervisory department, adding, “I hope they go along with it.”

A similar model was chosen by the Gezer, Upper Galilee and South Sharon local councils. The Gezer council says, “They just needed to distribute resources differently, with fewer hours per week for each class, but bringing everyone to school every day.” Thus, instead of 29 weekly hours in grades 1 and 2, 31 hours in grades 3 and 4 and 32 hours in grades 5 and 6, all classes in the Gezer council will have 25 hours of schooling, five days a week.

The Rishon Letzion Municipality says it will recruit 200 more staff to the school system in order to enable full class studies for grades 1 to 4. Herzliya says it will implement the cabinet plan inversely – first and second graders will study six days a week, divided into capsules, while third and fourth graders will study three days a week, alternating between class and home. In the three days spent at home, pupils will be able to see teachers and blackboards through cameras installed in classrooms.

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