Israeli Health Officials Fear Worse COVID Outbreak if Schools Reopen Too Quickly

Senior Israeli official warns that an 'uncontrolled, rapid exit' from the lockdown could bring another spike in an already high rate of COVID19 illness particularly among young people

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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An empty school in Tel Aviv after Israel shut schools 11 months ago for the first coronavirus lockdown.
An empty school in Tel Aviv after Israel shut schools 11 months ago for the first coronavirus lockdown. Credit: Corinna Kern/Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israeli health officials understand it’s essential to reopen the country’s schools after weeks of lockdown but worry that more young people will be infected with COVID-19 unless the resumption of classes is done cautiously.

The schools will have very little time to prepare for resuming classes, and that may mean the reopening will take place too quickly and on too wide a scale.

“The ministry’s plan is cautious, but it’s not certain this is what will be approved or implemented in practice,” one senior official said, warning that an “uncontrolled, rapid exit” from the coronavirus lockdown “will certainly increase morbidity. I believe we’ll especially see a rise in serious cases among young people.”

The Health Ministry’s plan would on Monday reopen only the preschools, first through fourth grades and 11th and 12th grades, and only in “green” and “yellow” towns (meaning those with low infection rates). Many children would remain at home: Those in towns with higher incidence of disease, and all 5th- through 10th-graders, who have already been home longer than other children in the past year.

Unlike the exits from previous lockdowns, the ministry doesn’t object to reopening schools this time, even though incidence of the virus among children under 18 hit an all-time high in January. Over 60,000 children were diagnosed with the coronavirus last month, almost three times December’s figure.

There are two reasons for the ministry’s change of heart. One is that the latest lockdown – which has already lasted six weeks – hasn’t proven effective, despite the enormous price exacted from the public. At most, the lockdown appears to have slowed the spread of the virus, without seriously driving down the rate of infection. Therefore, it’s hard to justify extending the restrictions.

The second consideration for health officials is the damage that children have suffered for their lengthy absences from school in the past year. A report published last week by the Israel National Council for the Child found that from March to October 2020, the number of calls to the Social Affairs Ministry’s hotline about suspected child abuse doubled, while the number of children with suicidal tendencies referred to psychologists rose by 40 percent.

Moreover, the report said, parents reported that almost a third of children weren’t engaged in remote learning, either because their schools haven’t offered it or because they have effectively dropped out of their Zoom classes. More than half of children in Arabic-language schools and 35 percent in Hebrew-language classrooms don’t even have a computer available at home for remote learning.

Indeed, Israel tops the OECD in numbers of schooldays its children have missed. As TheMarker reported earlier this week, children in most OECD countries have attended school for most or all of the current school year, whereas Israel hasn’t had a single day this year in which schools were open nationwide for all ages.

A panel of experts advising the ministry recommended fully opening schools for the designated age groups only in green towns, or those with the lowest rates of infection, while in yellow towns, mass testing would be conducted once a week to determine whether a school could reopen. It also recommended that teaching be done only by vaccinated teachers, while unvaccinated teachers should continue teaching only remotely.

Ministry professionals, including coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash and the public health director, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, have largely agreed with these recommendations.

“Everyone agrees about the importance of opening and maintaining the education system,” said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, who heads the school of public health at Ben-Gurion University and is a member of its advisory panel. “What reshuffled the deck are the new variants of the virus.”

But he warned that his panel’s proposal would take time to prepare and lamented that little has been donein the past six weeks. Not only do teachers and schools need to be prepared for reopening, he said, but so do parents, because “without their agreement and support, it won’t work.”

Despite the high incidence of illness among children, there are also some encouraging signs, he said. “We’re seeing some progress in vaccinating teachers, and also in dividing [schools] into capsules and teaching outside, in the open air.”

Since last week, 11th and 12th graders have also been eligible for vaccination.

“The easiest thing is to leave everything closed, but we see the damage this has done to children, so we have to find the golden mean,” Davidovitch said. “After a year of crisis, I hope we’ve learned something.”

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