Israel Gambles on Success of COVID Booster Campaign as Schools Reopen

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Children escorted by a parent making their way to school in southern Israel as schools reopen across the country, today.
Children escorted by a parent making their way to school in southern Israel as schools reopen across the country, today.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Schools across the country are set to reopen Wednesday, with Israel gambling that its COVID booster campaign will be enough to offset increased infection rates caused by the return of millions of students to classrooms.

With booster shots now available to anyone aged 12 and over, the number of people receiving their third shot on Monday was a record: 114,851. Over 2.15 million Israelis have received a third dose since the end of July.

According to the Education Ministry, around 2,458,000 students are expected to resume their studies, as the academic year begins at some 5,275 schools and 21,000 kindergartens employing 209,000 instructional staff.

In a presentation to the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee on Monday, ministry officials said 53 percent of students in grades seven through nine, 81 percent in grades 10 through 12, and 86 percent of educational staff were vaccinated, and that around 2 million COVID tests have been sent to schools.

While severe cases among the inoculated have declined in recent weeks, overall infections have continued to rise, reaching a record 10,947 on Monday – the same day that the number of COVID deaths since the pandemic reached Israel last year rose past 7,000.

Students at a school in Jaffa during the last school year. Credit: Hadas Parush

About half of the new cases Monday were among students or school staff, the ministry said. (Although the academic year begins for most of Israel on Wednesday, students at religious schools have been back for most of August.)

During a meeting Monday evening, the coronavirus cabinet voted to extend Green Pass regulations to all staff at health and educational institutions. The rules make admission to various public locations subject to presentation of proof of vaccination or recovery from the virus (and antibody testing for children too young to be vaccinated).

Additionally, the government has decided to make expansive use of rapid antigen swab tests. Teachers who are unvaccinated will be required to return a negative COVID test twice a week at rapid testing complexes across the country.

Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association, said last week his union may turn to the High Court of Justice if unvaccinated teachers who refuse to be tested are suspended without pay.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that in “red” cities (those with high rates of infection), any class with a vaccination rate of less than 70 percent in grades 8 through 12 would have to study remotely (while a class with a vaccination rate above 70 percent can come to school). The government has determined that from September 30, inoculation will be measured by having received at least two doses of the vaccine. Students who are learning remotely will be encouraged to be vaccinated in schools.

Students leaving a school in northern Israel last June, as the school year ended.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The Education Ministry estimated that, based on the current plan, some 150,000 students in eighth through 12th grade in red cities will have to study remotely. 

The government is also planning on vaccinating students in schools despite opposition from Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. She previously described such efforts as a “crime,” arguing that it would put “social pressure” on students already suffering from emotional distress caused by the pandemic. Under Shasha-Biton, the ministry has stated that there is no way to prevent unvaccinated children from coming to class.

The government will be hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier this month when the ultra-Orthodox community saw infection rates rise after schools reopened. According to Health Ministry data released on August 8, the day the ultra-Orthodox schools reopened, at the time Haredim comprised only 5 percent of new COVID cases in Israel. By Monday, that share had risen to 23 percent.

A report by a panel of experts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was presented on Friday to the government, found that boosters and restrictions curbed the spread of the delta variant in the country.

A possible rise in cases as the school year opens would not be enough to change the overall downward trend, the experts concluded.

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