Education Ministry Leaves Principals to Contend With COVID-19 Chaos Alone

The omicron variant has exposed the soft underbelly of the Education Ministry, which failed to adapt regulations to changing circumstances

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
Students wearing masks in a classroom in Givatayim.
Students in a school in Givatayim. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

At 10:30 P.M. on Sunday night, a school principal in the Tel Aviv area sent parents a message informing them that another class had been moved to remote learning via Zoom. This had happened on previous days too. During the day the principal tries to understand and implement the tangled instructions issued by the ministries of health and education, constantly attempting to keep parents and teachers informed.

The omicron variant has again exposed the soft underbelly of the Education Ministry. Senior officials, led by Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, have fallen silent and made themselves scarce for many days. Earlier regulations were not adapted to changing circumstances, with no words of encouragement given or recognition of the chaotic situation prevailing in schools. “Principals are always subjected to contradictory demands and pressures, but this time I feel more alone,” one principal says.

Education Ministry officials admit they are finding it difficult to understand the ministry’s policy. Is it in-person classes at any cost, or a rapid and sweeping return to remote learning? From here, the path is short to a situation in which every school acts according to its own understanding and capabilities, a pedagogic version of “every man for himself.” In Tel Aviv, for example, the municipality distributed home test-kits to teachers, in an attempt to save them from standing in line for hours at test centers, often to find that the centers have run out of kits when it’s their turn.

On the other hand, principals continue to receive daily announcements about programs for exceptional students in science, about the correct use of digital games, etc. The system continues to function in the only manner it knows. Many principals feel helpless, just like in the distant days of the first outbreak two years ago. “The feeling of being disconnected is so painful that it’s become grotesque,” says one principal. It’s possible that the gap between the reality at large and what’s happening inside schools has never been greater.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

At this stage of the pandemic, the Education Ministry could be expected to know how important it is to make learning conditions more flexible, thus helping local authorities and schools prepare for times of need that, again, have caught decision-makers by surprise. The ministry did not make use of the time it had to develop alternate ways of teaching, and apparently not by coincidence. There was almost no new thought given to remote learning; it’s Zoom or nothing. It’s doubtful whether anyone refusing to learn and change during the previous rounds of the pandemic will act differently now. Thus, tens of thousands of pupils are condemned to again encounter an ineffective method of teaching. What should have been a last resort has become the default option.

Some principals realize, once more, that they are the “responsible adult,” the one needing to shape the study routines during an ongoing pandemic. This includes learning in open spaces within and close to schools, and in community centers, museums and other venues. Instead of proposing a routine that is disconnected to anything meaningful, it would be better to invest in social and emotional aid, which is more important than one more history chapter or math lesson. Schools have not lost their mission; they only need an updated version. COVID affords an opportunity to rethink what is taught and how.

In the tangle of regulations, some schools find themselves facing a new front of furious parents. One group that has vaccinated their children demand the continuation of school as usual, opposing remote learning. They believe the vaccine should afford them this benefit. A second group calls for teaching all classes remotely. They claim their children have the same right to an education as vaccinated kids do.

Several local authorities are warning of manpower shortages, with a scarcity of kindergarten teachers and aides. “The pandemic is stretching everyone,” says one source. “Young teachers who did not choose teaching out of a social or personal commitment find it easier to leave.” Next year, competition over teachers will grow, with increasing gaps between wealthy and poor communities.

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