One Week to Start of School Year: Israel at a Loss Over COVID Resolutions

The plan to reopen schools on September 1 has raised an abundance of legal and educational questions, and authorities admit they can't answer them all

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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File photo: Elementary school students in Jerusalem.
File photo: Elementary school students in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

After the coronavirus cabinet decided Sunday that the new school year will begin September 1, as usual, several troubling questions remained. They concern the thousands of teachers who are unvaccinated; students’ right to an education, regardless of their vaccine status; the study format in secondary schools; the responsibilities and the authorities of the principals.

The Education Ministry admitted that it cannot answer all the questions immediately. “We are waiting for regulations so that we can draft orderly responses,” the ministry said. The regulations are being drawn up in the Attorney General’s Office. According to sources in the ministry, one of the main issues now under discussion is the decision to impose the Green Pass scheme, which requires proof of immunity or a negative test, on teachers.

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The ministry estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of education staffers (some 30,000 out of 260,000) are unvaccinated. The ministry’s legal bureau and Justice Ministry officials are discussing the restrictions and their implementation. Will these individuals have to be tested for the coronavirus daily, every two days, every three days? Who pays for the tests? What will happen to teachers who refuse both vaccination and testing? Will they be placed on unpaid leave or, as Israeli Secondary School Teachers Association chair Ran Erez proposes, moved to online teaching, subject to a decision by the principal?

The cabinet resolution also applies Green Pass restrictions to non-employees who regularly enter schools, such as people who operate extracurricular activities or deliver lunches. Officials are also examining the legality of demanding a Green Pass from the parents of young children who want to accompany them on their first days of school. A source in the Education Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that principals will probably be allowed to hold separate opening-day ceremonies for each grade in an effort to reduce contagion.

Erez expressed satisfaction with the decisions of the coronavirus cabinet. “[They] were in keeping with our positions, as we’ve made clear over the past month,” he said. “The school year must open, there must be vaccinations in the schools and entry into an educational institution must be with a Green Pass.”

The Israel Teachers Union, which represents mainly elementary school teachers, has decided to wait for the detailed regulations to be published, but said, “The rules that apply to public sector workers who come in direct contact with the public must also apply to education workers. There’s no difference between medical staff and educational staff.”

One Tel Aviv principal said that while the intentions were good and the plan might even allow for reasonable learning, “Why did they have to wait until the last minute? Why didn’t they do serological testing a month ago? After all, the data doesn’t change. Instead, everything is forced into the last week of vacation, putting great pressure on the parents and teachers.” He added: “There’s a lot of talk about the right of parents not to vaccinate their children. There’s less talk about the right of the vaccinated children to an education.”

Education officials in the local authorities warned of difficulties that could arise if the Green Pass requirements are applied to preschools. According to the Education Ministry, some 4,000 of the country’s 50,000 preschool teachers are not vaccinated. If it is decided that they will not be allowed to teach, the sources said, it will be hard to find replacements for them due to the chronic shortage of preschool teachers and assistants, which has apparently gotten worse this year.

“The effort to find a substitute preschool teacher became almost mission impossible during the coronavirus period,” says a veteran preschool teacher in a large city in central Israel. She said that an assistant in a preschool class adjacent to her is refusing to be vaccinated. “Under the municipality’s orders, she will have to undergo a [coronavirus] test every other day. No one believes that will really happen or that it will be enforced. The shortage is too great, and no one pays attention. There is no systemic thinking.

Students in a Tel Aviv classroom, February. Credit: Moti Milrod

“We are opening the preschools as if there is no pandemic,” the teacher added. “Health declarations aren’t worth much, parents are to be allowed in during the first days, and there’s no splitting [of classes into groups]. The worst thing is that we’ll have to stand at the entrance to the preschool and pester the parents for the permits. And what happens if parents decide not to come with proof of testing, for whatever reason? I’ll have to start fighting with a parent on the first day of school? They are making me responsible without giving me any authority.”

According to another preschool teacher, who works in Jerusalem, “Everyone’s worried about a Green Pass for the workers, but what about the children? How can I rely on parents to be truthful? After all, even in routine times they send their kids with fever. There’s no difference between routine and corona. Now I’ll have to check if they’ve indeed done serological testing. What am I, a policeman?”

The preschool teachers are worried that discovering a child who is sick will bring about the immediate quarantine of the entire class and the staff. Unlike the plan for restarting school in the elementary and secondary schools, there is no way to avoid this. “The preschools are the weak link in the plan,” said an educational official from the center of the country. “The percentage of children who will get positive results from the serological tests [meaning they’ve already had COVID-19] isn’t expected to be high; a child who is confirmed ill will send the entire class into quarantine. This means that many parents will have to remain at home.”

To the general confusion one could add another decision by the coronavirus cabinet. Last week it was decided that in “red” cities (with high rates of infection), in grades 8 to 12, any class with a vaccination rate of less than 70 percent would have to study remotely (while a class with a higher rate can come to school). But after officials realized that this decision doesn’t work in the higher grades, where many subjects are taught departmentally, outside the homeroom, the unit of reference was changed from “class” to “grade level.” On Sunday, however, the class was once again used as the frame of reference for this decision. No one in the Education Ministry could explain the reason for this zigzag.

Over the past few days the Education Ministry has stopped publishing statistics on infection rates among students and teachers, saying that the data on students must be updated (to add those entering first grade and remove those who have completed 12th grade). According to the last announcement, 36 percent of students in grades seven to nine were exempt from quarantine, while in grades 10 to 12 the rate was 62 percent, close to the 70 percent requirement for avoiding distance learning in red cities. Students who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, who have recovered from it or who have tested positive for it with a blood test are exempt from quarantine. The hope in the Education Ministry is that the number of students in this category will rise before September 1.

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