After kindergartens and the lower grades opened last week in some Israeli communities, some 1,260,000 children will head to in-person classes on Sunday, despite the incidence of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus, the fact that children are not being vaccinated and a third of teachers have yet to be vaccinated.
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Teachers fought, justifiably, for the right to received shots earlier and on January 7, two and a half weeks after the vaccination drive began, they were granted that priority, because the authorities realized that vaccinated teachers were a critical element in going back to in-person classes, for the sake of both their own families and their students. It was also important to get teachers their shots as soon as possible because it takes a month for the fullest protection against COVID-19 to kick in after both shots.
Some teachers were vaccinated even before they were given priority as a group either because they belonged to the appropriate older age group or visited an inoculation center where surplus vaccines were available.
But more than one third of teachers have still not been inoculated, or have received only one dose of the shot. The second round of school openings will bring children in grades 5–6 and 11–12 back to schools in cities designated green and yellow, as well as communities that are “light orange” – according to the “traffic light” system that places geographical areas in categories based on the numbers of infected people in their midst. Schools are reopening at a time when national figures for new infections are dropping, the R number, representing that figure, stands at 0.81 and 4 million Israelis have already had at least one shot.
The urgent need to get children back to school is clear to everyone, even to the most conservative and strictest of professionals in the health care system. But there are also some factors that make opening the education system the most a sensitive and explosive part of the process of returning to normal.
The first is that children are still not included in the vaccination program, and they are in fact the most exposed of any group to the virus. The second is the presence of particularly infectious variants of the virus, first and foremost the British variant, which has been found in 90 percent of samples. The third factor and the most painful, because something can be done about it – is the low rate of vaccinations among teachers. More than a third of teachers entering classrooms and coming into contact with students for several hours on Sunday are unvaccinated.
A disturbing picture emerges from data issued by the Clalit and Maccabi health maintenance organizations, which between them have more than 160,000 teachers as members. Among Clalit’s members, are more than 107,000 teachers – more than half the teachers in the country. According to figures published by Haaretz following a freedom of information request, 46 percent of Clalit members who are teachers have not received their first shot, and 25 percent have only received their first shot. Only 29 percent have received both shots. For Maccabi, which insures some 56,000 teachers, 34 percent have not been vaccinated at all, 26 percent have received a first shot, and only 40 percent have received both shots.
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The presence of so many unvaccinated teachers is of major significance in terms of virus outbreaks in schools, circles of people that will have to be isolated, available staff and the decision of many parents not to send their children to school.
In the background is a debate in principle over the possibility of informing the Education Ministry of teachers who have not been vaccinated, and a bill being promoted by the Health Ministry to allow it to restrict entry to workplaces, including schools, by unvaccinated people. Figures on infection rates now that schools are expanding in-person learning, will evidently dictate a decision on whether these steps are necessary, as well as how many more teachers and other who deal with the public bet their vaccination.
Anecdotal evidence is strong that vaccination against the coronavirus significantly reduces the ability to become infected with the virus and to infect others, even though this has not yet been confirmed by Pfizer.
Children and young people are the largest unvaccinated group in Israel. This component is significant when taking into account the increased presence of the British variant in recent months. In January alone, during the lockdown, 60,000 children were infected with coronavirus an unprecedented number compared to previous months since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, in December, 23,000 children were infected, before the British variant was widespread.
The rates of hospitalization and serious illness in children with COVID-19 are still very low.
Shira Kadari-Ovadia contributed to this report.