Israel Nixes COVID Quarantine for Schoolchildren Starting Next Week

A growing number of officials have come out against Israel's COVID policy, as over 100,000 schoolchildren have been sent to quarantine and teachers report half-empty classrooms

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At a Rehovot school in central Israel, classes convene outdoors to slow the spread of the omicron variant.
At a Rehovot school in central Israel, classes convene outdoors to slow the spread of the omicron variant.Credit: Hadas Parush

Israel will exempt schoolchildren from quarantine if they are exposed to a COVID carrier starting next Thursday, as record numbers of students are stuck at home, threatening to drive the economy to a standstill.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and senior health officials announced on Thursday that all students will be required to take a home antigen every Sunday and Wednesday before going to school.

"Children are returning to continuity in schooling," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during a televised address with the health and education ministers, adding that medical experts had determined that the young were on sufficiently "safe ground" to warrant the review. The home kits will be supplied free of charge, he said.

There were 593 COVID patients in serious condition on Thursday, including 112 on ventilators, according to the Health Ministry. The number of new cases diagnosed on Wednesday was nearly 65,000. The past week has seen 63 people die of COVID in Israel, with an average of eight deaths a day. As of Thursday, there are nearly 200,000 people in quarantine. 

Israel's existing quarantine policy has come under fire in recent weeks from within the government and from health experts for sending droves of asymptomatic Israelis into quarantine, with a growing number of voices claiming that it is an ineffective tool in slowing the spread of the highly-contagious omicron variant.

The problem has been especially acute in the school system, with over 100,000 schoolchildren in quarantine across the country as of Sunday, a significantly higher number than previous waves.

Although the education system is nominally operating as usual, many schools are facing half-empty classrooms as swaths of schoolchildren are sent into quarantine.

In preschools, where the vast majority of children are not eligible for vaccinations, contact with a coronavirus carrier leads to a complete shutdown of the institution. The Education Ministry does not have concrete figures on how many preschools are shuttered, but some estimates number in the hundreds across the country.

Education Minister Shasha-Biton has been leading the charge to loosen the government's policy, and on Saturday again called to “immediately limit quarantine for healthy children.” Alongside the minister and several local council heads, around 250 school principals signed a letter testifying to “the mental cost” of interruptions of in-person learning, and appealed for unvaccinated children to be exempt from the sweeping quarantine policy.

Over the weekend, various ministry officials also called to amend the current quarantine policy. The chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians proposed mandating confirmed coronavirus patients enter isolation only if they experience COVID symptoms, are in a high-risk group for serious illness, or if they are likely to come in contact with populations that are at high risk for serious illness.

The head of anesthesia and intensive care at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, Professor Idit Matot, also called to exempt asymptomatic patients from isolation.

In a response, the Health Ministry said it is investing "tremendous efforts to save lives and keep the public safe," adding that such statements are creating “an irresponsible conversation aimed at eroding public trust.”

Israel has already cut quarantine from seven to five days, a decision which went into effect on Wednesday. According to the new policy, people infected with COVID will have to conduct two home antigen tests on the fourth and fifth days after they were diagnosed and will be able to leave isolation after the fifth day, as long as the tests were negative, and they do not have symptoms.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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