Israeli Schools Put on a Brave Face Amid COVID Surge

Principals have been left trying to cope with Israel's demand that schools stay open despite some 40,000 students and teachers had tested positive for COVID and 78,000 were in quarantine

A class held outside at a Rehovot high school.
A class held outside at a Rehovot high school. Credit: Hadas Parush

Israel’s schools remained open Sunday, at least officially, due to new pandemic regulations stipulating that children should continue to attend classes in-person, even in communities where coronavirus infection rates are high. But the situation is more complicated.

In kindergartens and elementary schools, where few children are vaccinated, more and more kids were sent home as the day wore on, as a result of exposure to a confirmed carrier of the virus. In Tel Aviv alone, 50 preschools have closed due to mass quarantines in recent days.

Altogether, 40,000 students and teachers had tested positive for the virus as of Sunday, and 78,000 were in quarantine. Other teachers were absent because they had to stay home with children in quarantine.

Principals have been left trying to cope with the Education Ministry’s demand that schools stay open despite the surging infection rates. Remote learning is allowed only with special permission from the ministry.

“Every second another child [tests positive for the virus], and there are more and more teachers who discover they have it following home testing, so they’re absent too,” said Yael, a high school teacher from central Israel. “And there are students who aren’t infected but their parents are afraid, so they stay home.

A class held outside at a school in Rehovot, on Sunday. Credit: Hadas Parush

“In some classes, only five students show up,” she continued. “It’s very hard to function like this. The infection rate is insane.”

Despite officially remaining open, schools are forced to alter their schedules frequently due to teachers’ absences. And teachers who do show up are teaching half-empty classes.

“One student brought a computer and told the class she was launching Zoom for whoever needed it, but that was her personal initiative,” Yael said despairingly. “It’s not as if the school has equipment for remote teaching, or strong enough internet to broadcast all the classes for the students who are absent.”

Many principals sound equally despairing. “At this rate, the school system will shut down out of necessity due to teachers being sick or quarantined,” said Haim Badash, principal of the Yehud Comprehensive High School, outside of Tel Aviv.

He is frustrated by the ministry’s policy of letting children exposed to a carrier come to school if they’re cleared by a home test, because there’s no way to know whether they actually did the test.

At Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the state would give all preschool and elementary school teachers and students three home test kits in hopes that this would encourage students to use them.

Nevertheless, some principals are happy with the decision to leave schools open. Yael Ayalon, principal of Tel Aviv’s Ironi Yud Dalet high school, wrote parents that she has no plans to switch to remote learning despite receiving an increasing number of requests to do so in recent days. “Learning by Zoom isn’t optimal, to say the least,” she wrote.

Over the past two years, she continued, the school has noticed serious problems “stemming from the prolonged stays at home – children who suffer from depression and anxiety, a rise in the number of children at risk of suicide, a rise in the number of students dealing with eating disorders, students who report feelings of alienation and social disconnection.

“If we knew that switching to Zoom learning for one week would suffice and that the omicron wave was nearing its end, we’d switch to Zoom without hesitation,” Ayalon’s letter added. But in reality, this variant of the virus will likely cause mass infections for weeks to come, and “learning by Zoom for a month or more would harm many children.”

The principals of Jerusalem’s Himmelfarb high school and junior high agreed, writing to parents that they saw no sense in remote learning as long as the economy remains open and students continue to mingle at home and in other places. Moreover, they wrote, “part of staying sane is maintaining the routine of getting up in the morning, getting dressed and getting ready for classes at school.”

Nevertheless, they admitted that this policy might not last. If too many teachers catch the virus, they wrote, “it will be time to switch to online learning.”

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