How Did Schools Become the Israeli Economy's Coronavirus Babysitter?

At least the ultra-Orthodox understand the value of keeping schools open for the sake of the children, not just to let parents return to work

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A teacher wearing personal protective equipment in an Israeli school, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The flag of Haredi rebellion was raised on October 18. It happened after the ultra-Orthodox leadership had been led to believe they would be permitted to reopen elementary schools for boys – talmudei torah or chederim in local parlance, as long as pupils were divided into capsules of 10 and social-distancing rules were observed – only to be disappointed to discover that the politicians wouldn’t allow it.

Often as not honored in the breach, this time the principle of legal equality wouldn’t allow one set of schools in the Haredi world reopen while all the others remain shut.

What the ultra-Orthodox leadership proposed by way of compromise was to open only the boys’ schools, believing that it wouldn’t be so terrible if girls remained at home because, after all, all they do is learn skills they’ll one day use to find a job. It’s the religious studies the boys engage in that sustains God’s world. How could a secular legal expert be so appalled by that proposal?

The result was a mutiny, a piratical opening of talmudei torah for grades one through eight. However, in contrast to the impression that was created, is was only a partial reopening. The institutional part of the Haredi education systems – the ones under the aegis of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties – are officially operated by local municipalities and they remained shut. Also, girls’ schooling seen by Haredi leaders as marginal, didn’t resume.

In other words, the Haredi revolt was mainly about the private talmudei torah which provide education for anywhere between a third to a half of all Haredi boys, or 40,000 to 60,000 children, in the first through eighth grades. Moreover, it’s estimated that most of these schools adhered to rules limiting classrooms to no more than 10 to 20 pupils. Some of them even agreed to follow Health Ministry rules to test students and teachers for coronavirus. Many were enforcing rules about wearing masks.

“We’re not outlaws by choice – it’s because we have no choice,” said Arik Adler, the treasurer of the Bnei Brak municipality, trying in vain to explain the revolt of the private talmudei torah. “Should the supermarkets stay closed for three months? Of course not. So how could it occur to anyone to keep grades eight through 12 closed for months? It’s no less essential. Rabbi [Chaim] Kanievsky [the leader of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodoxy] said such a thing would never have occurred to him.”

As outrageous as it is, the Haradi revolt has had important results. As I am writing, 10 days have passed since the rebellion erupted and the rate of coronavirus contagion in the ultra-Orthodox community has been declining. Up to 60,000 boys are back in school, many of them under relatively safe conditions, without causing any surge in COVID-19 cases. True, it takes two weeks to reach any firm conclusions about contagion, but for now it seems that the Haredi education system hasn’t created a public health risk.

Ultra-orthodox children crossing the street in Jerusalem, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The revolt also sheds light on the conduct of secular Israelis. More than two weeks ago the Health Ministry presented a strategy for exiting the lockdown, whose first two stages have already been completed. The second of those, implemented on Sunday, opened schools for children in the first through fourth grades. However, the ministry has recommended delaying the reopening of grades five through 12 until the sixth stage of the government’s plan, which would be January 1.

Thus Israel’s fifth graders will be reacquainting themselves with their teachers again after a long hiatus. Before they are allowed back to school, the government’s timetable calls for reopening guest houses, fitness centers, hotels, swimming pools and shopping malls.

The Health Ministry justifies this timetable on epidemiological grounds. Schooling takes place in a closed environment with lots of people and both students and teachers moving from place to place over the course of the day. Schools are riskier places than fitness clubs and restaurants. The Finance Ministry agrees.

“A restaurant is maybe more dangerous than a classroom,” says one treasury official, “but schools involve a million people and if there’s a rise in contagion rates because they’re reopened the overall rate of declining infections will be halted and may even rise. If so we won’t be able to reopen the economy.”

As he sees it: “Eighth graders won’t die if they have to wait another month to return to school, but a small business won’t survive another month if it stays closed.”

This kind of reasoning explains why officials were in a hurry to reopen kindergartens after the lockdown and grades one through four not long afterwards: The government wanted to get get the youngest children back in school so their parents would be free to return to their jobs. In other words, children are there to contribute to the economy, or at least not become an obstacle to its functioning. They have no role other than not to get in the way.

That attitude couldn’t be any more wrong. The haredim have shown us that it’s possible to resume classes up through eighth grade, if it is done under relatively safe conditions. In addition, it’s pretty clear that restaurants and fitness centers are more dangerous than classrooms for the spread of the coronavirus, but the government prefers to open them first, not just due to lobbyists’ pressure but because officials are giving higher priority to the economy than to the welfare of the children.

Even the purely economic calculation is faulty because it amounts to managing the risks of the pandemic on an entirely short-term basis. The collapse of small businesses will certainly have an immediate impact on economic activity, the unemployment rate and the jobless benefits the government will have to pay.

The cumulative damage to children kept out of school for such an extended period cannot be quantified. The emotional and behavioral issues it creates threaten damage to the economy and quality of life, even if that only manifests itself years from now. Since no one can measure the impact, they choose to ignore it.

So, the Health Ministry has come back with a new timetable that moves forward the resumption of grades 11 and 12 to the third of the six stages of reopening after the second lockdown, before grades five through 10 are allowed to resume. This is strange because we know that the contagion risk for the higher grades is a lot higher than for fifth graders. But upper grade classes will resume earlier nonetheless because those students need to complete their bagrut (matriculation) exams in time for the compulsory military draft. By comparison, the damage an 11-year-old suffers from being cut off from friends is too amorphous to merit serious attention.

Note: Almost all developed countries have reopened their schools at an early stage of their lockdown exits. Just like the Haredim, they understand that education comes first. Schools don’t exist as babysitters for parents away at work; they are there for the children’s sake. “We don’t really know what’s more dangerous in terms of contagion – malls or schools,” said Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians. “We do know that we have to find an equilibrium that allows life to carry on during the pandemic. What will e do if there isn’t a vaccine? Will eighth graders not be allowed to go to school for another year?”

This is the fundamental failure of risk management in Israel’s lockdown-exit strategy. The public, not the disease, should be dictating the pace of the exit. Public resilience will be the deciding factor in coping with the pandemic. In that respect, the Haredim are right: The public cannot tolerate a months’ long closure of the educational system. Neither should the government.

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