Analysis

As Schools Near Collapse, Israel to Spend More Than $1b to Open Them in Fall

The Education Ministry hasn’t presented any plan for high-risk students or teachers, nor one to enable students without computer access to participate in distance learning

Lior Dattel
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A person cleans a desk at the Keshet School to prepare to open under coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, May 1, 2020
Lior Dattel

It will cost 4.2 billion ($1.2 billion) shekels to open Israel’s schools in September, Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz agreed on Wednesday. The money will be used to improve distance learning and to hire tens of thousands of new teachers, including the currently unemployed and students,

The budget needs government approval, and it’s still not clear where the money will come from. Due to the short time frame, Education Ministry sources stated Wednesday that they probably won’t be able to fully prepare for the new school year, given the restrictions in place to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

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Now local authorities and school principals have only a few weeks to hire tens of thousands of new teachers — most of whom will likely have no actual teaching background or training — and to buy millions of shekels in supplies to carry out distance learning.

Under the plan, children in preschool through second grade will stay in their current classroom formats — classes of 34 or 35 children — with no efforts made to preserve two-meter distancing between children, and without their being required to wear masks in class. In comparison, children in grades 5-12 will attend school only two days a week in groups of up to 18, and spend the rest of the time distance learning. Children in grades 3 and 4 will attend most days in person and be split into classes of up to 18 children.

Despite Wednesday’s announcement, the Education Ministry hasn’t yet released a full plan for the fall that would enable opening schools — a month before Israel’s school year is set to begin and five months after the coronavirus pandemic began in Israel. It seems likely that even this next school year will be a wasted one that hurts pupils and doesn’t enable all parents to head out to work. Beyond the budgetary issues, it’s not clear how the system will hire tens of thousands of new teachers and acquire the equipment needed for distance learning so quickly.

Gallant can’t spin this

While Gallant called Israel’s plan ground-breaking on an international scale, most OECD countries that returned to routine are holding classes in particularly small groups of up to 10 children, and Israel is cited as an example around the world of a country that opened its education system in a way that sacrificed its early gains in controlling the coronavirus. It seems like the government and the Education Ministry didn’t learn from the failed reopening of schools in May, after shutting them in March as the virus began to spread.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led the negligent reopening of the education system in a way that apparently led to Israel’s second wave of coronavirus infections, is disconnected from what’s happening on the ground here and in other countries, and is leading the education system to another failure. It seems the issue isn’t even on his agenda. Netanyahu has never treated the school system seriously, even though it’s responsible for the education and quality of life of Israel’s next generation, and the ability of the current generation of adults to go out and work.

Since the pandemic began, the main risk that Israel has focused on is keeping the hospitals from reaching the point where they can’t treat patients. No one is talking about the equally concrete risk of the education system collapsing due to the government’s actions — reaching the point where it can’t actually teach children, causing intense damage to them and to the economy.

Despite publishing the main points of its plan on Wednesday, the Education Ministry still doesn’t know exactly how many teachers it needs to hire to enable smaller classes. It doesn’t know how many people will even want to work as teachers; and it has no idea how it will train tens of thousands of people with no background in teaching whatsoever to prepare them to work in primary schools.

Likewise, it hasn’t presented a plan to enable students without computer access to participate in distance learning, and it hasn’t presented any plan for high-risk students or teachers, or those with high-risk family members. It hasn’t even published a convincing explanation of why smaller classes aren’t needed in first and second grade, particularly given the speed at which the coronavirus is spreading and the speed at which it began to spread once Israel did away with smaller classes in mid-May. It also hasn’t explained why 12th graders won’t attend class in school at all. It seems the Education Ministry hasn’t checked out alternatives thoroughly enough, but was forced to publish a plan anyway due to time pressure.

Furthermore, the ministry has no idea what the curriculum will be, what children will learn and how many days a week they’ll learn it. Plus, this year, too, will begin without teachers in preschool through middle school having signed a wage agreement.

Chaos

The education system is on the brink of collapse, and on September 1, it’s likely there will be many students who don’t have a teacher who can teach them, and no way to effectively learn from home. Furthermore, even though the ministry has been talking for years about shifting to 21st-century learning, only one-third of schools here have an internet connection and a computer in every classroom, according to the ministry’s own data. The other two-thirds of schools don’t have the basic technological infrastructure to enable optimal distance learning, and teachers have received no instruction on how to conduct distance learning. According to the Knesset Research and Information Center, the Education Ministry doesn’t even know how many students didn’t participate in distance learning when schools were closed during the first infection wave.

Even in normal times, the Education Ministry faces many challenges and only partially serves students and their parents. Over the past five months, the education system has been in chaos. The next school year will likely begin September 1 as scheduled, but if the government doesn’t come to its senses and put the education system at the top of its priority list, it’s unlikely to function.

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