Israel's Plan to Reopen Schools Is 'A Recipe for COVID Outbreak,' Official Says

The plan will exempt students who were exposed to COVID-19 from having to isolate – a policy which could accelerate the spread of the disease and turn Israel's schools into infection hubs

Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel
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Israeli students leaving school.
Israeli students leaving school. Credit: Emil Salman
Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel

The education and health ministries' plan to re-open Israel's schools come September 1 has sparked serious backlash, with one government adviser warning that the model could lead to mass coronavirus outbreaks and quarantines.

The plan for reopening schools, which was approved by the government on Sunday, has no restrictions in place that would limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded schools. The plan will exempt students who were exposed to people with coronavirus from having to isolate themselves, on the condition that they are tested for the virus every day for a full week every time they are exposed to a confirmed patient. The policy to exempt students from isolation may accelerate the spread of the disease and turn schools into infection hubs.

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“This is a recipe for the mass quarantine of students and their families, which in the end could very well lead to a shutdown of entire schools, and even to a closure of the entire education system,” said a source, who belongs to one of the teams advising the government on the pandemic. “This is a recipe for a coronavirus outbreak,” he said.

The Education Ministry is determined to open schools normally and on time, even though the Health Ministry wants to conduct another situation assessment on the matter close to September 1.

The model will be carried out in a pilot program starting Monday in Haredi schools, which begin their school year at the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul, and in Arab schools as of September 1. A decision on expanding the program to all schools will be made at a later date. Until then, the policy on isolation for students in the secular and religious public school systems will continue unchanged.

The alleged problem with the new policy is that, in about 30 percent of cases, those infected with the coronavirus test negative in the first test taken after exposure, and only later are discovered to be infected.

“We know that people who were infected with the coronavirus infect others mostly during the first days of the illness. This is also the period during which infected individuals incorrectly test negative. I’m very worried about a situation in which students who were infected will continue to come to school, and until they test positive will continue to infect students, teachers and other family members. They will spread the virus more and more, and we will enter a never-ending cycle of infections,” said the source.

“Over the past few months we have seen cases of super-spreaders in schools. Under the current policy, it will not be possible to prevent such cases. Without restrictions in the schools – such as pods that will slow down the spread of the disease and without a proper isolation policy – I estimate that under the present plan we will be forced to deal with huge outbreaks in schools with great frequency. We could reach a situation in which every week there is a case of a large infectious outbreak in the schools. This is a situation that will complete disrupt studies in the school system,” he added.

According to the new model, if one of the students in a class tests positive for the virus after a few days, the other students will be required to continue getting tested for the coronavirus for an even longer period. If one of them then tests positive, the rest of the class will have to continue to be tested for an even longer period.

For example, if a student tests positive after three days, the rest of the students will be required to be tested for another three days. If one tests positive after five days, then they will all have to take tests for an additional five days. During this time, experts fear that sick students will continue to infect others – both inside the school and outside it. Because Israeli schools are among the most crowded in the western world, the possibility of infection spreading through the schools is much higher than in Europe.

Today, about 50,000 students and teachers are in isolation after being exposed to coronavirus carriers, mostly as a result of the partial opening of the schools for the summer school program, which took place in elementary schools and preschools in the month of July. The Haredi schools open on Monday and some 250,000 students will start class without any restrictions, and without being mandated to quarantine in the case of exposure to the virus.

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