Israel's Education Minister Opposes 'Crime' of COVID Vaccinations in Schools

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Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Israel 2021.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Israel 2021.Credit: Emil Salman
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Israel's education minister said she opposes vaccinating children against the coronavirus inside schools, arguing that it will cause “social pressure” on students already suffering from emotional distress caused by the pandemic. 

In an attempt to explain her opposition to providing vaccines in the schools, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton told Channel 12 News on Wednesday that “We are talking about children who for a year and a half sat at home, and are in emotional distress. It’s a crime as far as I’m concerned.” 

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Shasha-Biton expressed fear that the situation would lead to pressure on children, because it's ultimately up to the parents to decide whether to vaccinate them. “We are placing the children in an impossible situation,” she said.

But some in the Education Ministry were less convinced on the matter: “Students have been vaccinated in schools for decades. Claims of ‘social pressure’ that reach the level of a ‘crime’ are only heard on the margins,” said a ministry official. The Prime Minister’s Office said that as of now, a cabinet discussion on the question of vaccinations in schools is not planned.

On Thursday, Shasha-Biton tweeted that “the role of the education system is to educate. The role of the health system is to deal with health. An educational statement, saying it isn’t right to bring in unnecessary social pressure in schools, is taken out of context, to present my position in a distorted manner.”

An Education Ministry official said on Thursday that “vaccinations against the coronavirus are not similar to the regular vaccinations given in schools. There’s nothing that can be done about it, they are not part of the consensus.”

“It's impossible to ignore a lot of parents who are afraid of the coronavirus vaccine and don’t want to vaccinate their children,” said the official. “We don’t need to ‘import’ this disagreement into the schools, in such a way that the children who will not be vaccinated could very well be ‘marked’ and suffer socially. For example, they will want not to sit next to them (unvaccinated children). And all this happens while it's up to the parents to decide whether to vaccinate their children. We don’t need to bring a controversial discussion into schools.”

A minor receives a coronavirus vaccine in Givatayim, last month.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Vaccinations in the schools would add to the “psychological burden” on children, many of whom are still suffering from the emotional and social damage caused during the pandemic. This is an “attempt to make the vaccine compulsory through the backdoor. Parents have the right to decide on the matter. It’s like creating Haredi coercion in nonreligious schools,” said the ministry official.  

But not all the professional staff in the Education Ministry support Shasha-Biton’s position: “It's possible to have a professional debate over advantages and disadvantages of vaccinating teens in schools as opposed to doing it in the HMO (health) clinics,” said one official.

“But except for the margins among the vaccine opponents, whoever they are, it's hard to remember when a claim of ‘social pressure’ received such a central place. Such an argument fans the disinformation around vaccines as well as parents' fears instead of dealing with it through information.”

Today, vaccines are given in schools to children from first through eighth grades against a number of diseases and viruses, including measles, mumps, German measles, chickenpox, tetanus, diphtheria, the papillomavirus and influenza.

The dispute is also related to whether students can be forced to receive a vaccine, and reflects a broader conflict between the personal right to education versus the right to public health. So far, countries have been relatively wary to take such a step. New York City is an exception, which in response to a measles outbreak in 2019 – mostly in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods – decided to mandate residents in Brooklyn to be vaccinated.

According to a study conducted by the Knesset’s research and information center in 2018, a number of countries, such as the United States, Australia and some Canadian provinces, make certain vaccinations a requirement for registering for school. Some even remove students who are exempted from vaccinations from school if an outbreak of the disease occurs.   

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