Israel's plan to exempt schoolchildren who have been exposed to a confirmed COVID carrier from quarantine will go into effect on Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Wednesday, despite calls by Health Ministry officials to delay it.
The influential Israel Teachers Union has called on its members not to go to work on Thursday, in protest of "the government's decision that puts your health at risk." Special education institutions will operate normally, the union said.
The union represents some 150,000 teachers in most age groups. The law stipulates that unions first announce a labor dispute, and only after two weeks go on strike. Therefore, the state may now turn to court and seek an order against the strike. Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton says she will not like a strike happen, and will seek an order against it.
Officials at the union admitted they have no legal power to call the strike, but say they were left with no alternative after their attempts to influence policy in talks with government officials had failed.
Health Ministry officials advised the cabinet to postpone the exemption for children by 10 days, and the organization representing Israel’s pediatricians said it was "raising a red flag," citing a rise in infections and hospitalizations among minors.
All students – vaccinated or not – will undergo two home antigen tests per week, every Sunday and Wednesday, before going to school. All students must also get tested for the first time on Thursday, the day the new rules come into effect.
Students testing negative would be free to attend school. Students testing positive would be required to do another antigen test through an established medical care provider. If that test were negative, they would be free to go to school. If positive, they would go into quarantine for five days.
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Additionally, a student who is exposed to a COVID carrier will continue to attend school as usual. The Health Ministry recommends those who have a close and direct exposure with a COVID patient get tested every day for five days.
The new rules apply to all students, from preschool through high school. The Education Ministry said it will distribute 35 million home testing kits to schools and preschools for students to use in the coming weeks.
Students who are at high-risk of serious infection, or those with high-risk family members, are not required to come to school for the next month, however, schools are also not required to facilitate remote learning for those who stay home.
Senior Health Ministry officials met on Monday with representatives of the Israel Pediatric Association and a union of intensive care pediatricians. They looked at hospitalization rates and the number of serious cases, as well as cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, known as PIMS, which causes a fever and extreme inflammation in children.
At Monday’s meeting, it was decided there was no reason to defer the quarantine exemption. Even on Tuesday, the pediatric association's chairman, Prof. Tazhi Grossman, told Haaretz that “there’s some increase in hospitalizations and preliminary reports of the PIMS phenomenon, but not in massive numbers that would justify halting the plan.”
But overnight, after revised figures were received indicating overcrowding in hospital pediatric departments, the decision was reversed – as Grossman explained on Wednesday on Kan Bet public radio. “Things change quickly with this pandemic,” he said. “Last night, we at the Israel Pediatric Association conferred among ourselves about the hospitalization numbers – about 130 hospitalizations, including 20 in serious condition. Just four days ago, there were 11 in serious condition,” he said.
“Within four days, we have seen a doubling of the number of hospitalized children in serious condition,” he said. “In yesterday’s discussion among pediatric department directors, there were those who spoke about hospital overcrowding. … Over the past half a day, our colleagues in the field have alerted us to say ‘stop.’”
Grossman said that at this point he can't say how long the plan to nix quarantines should be stalled for. “At least for a week,” he said. “We need to see what happens with the rate of illness in general, but there’s no doubt that incidences of illness in general are also producing cases in pediatric departments – hospitalizations.”
He added: “It’s very possible that we’re beginning to repeat what happened in Britain and the United States, a large increase in regular pediatric hospitalizations. We’ve been starting to experience this here in just the last several days, and we need to stop."
Dr. Liat Ashkenazi Hoffnung, the director of the day hospitalization department and of the clinic for recovered coronavirus patients at Schneider Children’s Hospital, backed Grossman’s shift in position. She said on Wednesday she supported the change “in light of the high rate of illness and the forecast that it would double with the new [quarantine] plan.”
Children now represent over a third of all daily confirmed cases. On Monday alone, more than 32,000 children tested positive. That being said, nearly half of all of those being tested are children.
The Health Ministry does not have specific figures breaking down the reason for pediatric hospitalization.