Israeli Schools Say They Weren't Given Clear Directions on Dealing With COVID

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A school in Jaffa, in February
A school in Jaffa, in FebruaryCredit: Hadas Parush

No information on how to implement COVID-19 guidelines has been given to school principals, despite schools reopening within two weeks, nor have any alternatives to in-school learning been discussed by the Education Ministry.

While the Education Ministry is making its official preparations for a regular opening of the 2021-2022 school year in two weeks, the ministry has not yet provided schools with clear instructions, and has not given an opinion on problems that could arise, such as the need for remote learning or inadequate cooperation from parents, said education officials. 

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Monday that if current infection rates don't go down "there will be no choice but to delay the beginning of the school year."

However, he added that there is an advantage to starting the school year September 1 as it will allow "experimentation with all the methods we want to introduce, such as quick tests, quarantining versus not quarantining, and gaining trust in serological tests."

According to school principals, except for the framework reported in the media last week, they have not received further instructions, and the troubling question marks still remain. “Although the guidelines were reported in the media, we, the principals, have still not received them. In practice, there is no work plan,” said an elementary school principal from the north.

“As long as there is no information about resources and instructions, statements such as ‘the principals are the ones who will decide how to fight the infection’ have no foundation. We haven’t received explanations as to what our authority is, but the main thing is they passed the responsibility onto us.”

The chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, Modi'in mayor Haim Bibas, said Sunday, “we are waiting for the government to give us all the information and resources, so we can execute the plan, before it is too late.” Bibas added that while the current proposal is "excellent and innovative, a good idea can only go so far, and the execution of it needs to be considered, as well. Everybody needs to come together so that this plan will work."

Both inside the Education Ministry and outside it, people are warning that real alternatives to learning in school aren't being discussed, nor are preparations to improve online teaching. “Ideas that don’t fit the Education Minister's agenda of “returning to normal” at any price are not promoted. They are mentioned quietly in closed rooms and not in forums where decisions are made,” said a ministry official.

On Sunday, 11,912 students and 1,324 teachers were confirmed as carriers of COVID-19, according to Education Ministry figures. Two weeks ago, 7,142 students and 777 teachers with the disease. Among students with COVID-19, some 36 percent are in seventh through twelfth grade, and about 60 percent are in elementary school.

"Assuming infection rates don't go down, there's no logic in pushing for the school year to start on September 1. The 'holiness' of [the first day of school] won't be significantly tarnished if it's pushed back a few weeks, after the Sukkot break," said a source in the Education Ministry.

“The biggest variable is whether the “green classroom’ model will actually work,” the source added. “If it fails, the education system will close down in practice, without an official declaration, a few days after September 1.” The green classroom model has all students and teachers tested for seven days if there's a confirmed case among them and only those found to be carriers would subsequently isolate, as opposed to the previous model which would have a whole class quarantine after a confirmed case.

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved the proposal constructed by the Education and Health Ministries, in which all students – from preschool through twelfth grade – will physically study in school, in a full and normal manner without being divided up into smaller groups. But in cases where the city turns orange or red, the principal “will act to reduce contact, according to the needs and conditions” of the fifth grade and up, explained the Education Ministry.

In practice, these measures could mean learning in smaller groups and not in full classes, whether in other parts of the schools, for example in the library or shelter. In extreme cases, the measures could lead to students being divided into pods which will alternate between themselves between online and in-school learning.

The ministry provided a response saying that within the next week a full and detailed plan for principals will be released. As for cooperation with the parents on the tests, the ministry said “we trust the parents and believe they are partners in the national effort to hold classes safely, healthily, and without interruption, and that they will act out of parental responsibility and solidarity toward children in the community. However, the tests are not compulsory, and they depend on parental approval. A school will not prevent the entry of students whose parents refuse to conduct a test for them.”

Ido Efrati contributed to this report.

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