The Tel Aviv Labor Court issued injunctions Thursday against the teachers' union, cancelling the strike announced Wednesday night by the organization's secretary general.
The strike, called by Yaffa Ben David, came as a response to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's announcement that all students are exempt from quarantine if exposed to a confirmed COVID carrier and schoolchildren – vaccinated or not – are required to undergo two home antigen tests per week before attending school.
The plan went into effect Thursday, despite calls by Health Ministry officials to delay it. Thursday is also the first day students are required to begin their periodic at home testing.
The tribunal justified its decision by saying that the notice of a strike had arrived only 11 hours before the school day– an insufficient amount of time for an appropriate hearing on the matter. By law, unions are required to publically announce a labor dispute at least two weeks before going on strike.
Officials at the union admitted they had 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.
The union, which represents some 150,000 teachers in most age groups, called on its members not to go to work on Thursday in protest of the new measures and the injunctions. A discussion between the two parties is expected to be held on Thursday afternoon.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said that "forceful and political measures on the backs of Israeli children are inappropriate and unacceptable, certainly during such challenging days."
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Health Ministry officials had advised the cabinet to postpone the measure 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.
According to the new measures, 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.
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 at-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.
The Education Ministry was surprised Wednesday by the announcement from the Teachers' Union about the intention to strike. The ministry’s director general Dalit Stauber told Haaretz this morning that “the fact that students will now be tested twice a week will make schools safer.”
“During such an extended state of emergency, our social and health resilience is based on our ability to maintain a routine. Children are starved for social contact, and parents are reaching the limits of their capacity. Any other choice would be very bad."
Stauber referred to the move by Yaffa Ben-David, saying: "Everyone can express their opinion, but must follow the rules of a democratic state - and abide by a decision made legally.” The Regional Labor Court in Tel Aviv will hold a hearing this afternoon on the injunctions requested by the state.
Ben-David, for her part, criticized the Education Ministry's conduct this morning, and said in an interview with Ynet that it was putting “teaching staff in the line of fire." When asked if she thought Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Bitton was abandoning teachers, she replied: "In this decision, yes."
Initially, the Health Ministry supported the new measures. On Monday, senior ministry officials had met 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 the 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.”
Yet 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