Unsafe, Unhealthy Conditions Found at 1,000 Israeli Schools

Health Ministry report finds cat feces in schoolyards, food past sell-by date being served to children and many other violations at Tel Aviv-area schools

Parents walking their children to school in Tel Aviv.
\ Eyal Toueg

Almost 1,000 educational institutions in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, most of them preschools, were found to have poor sanitation and maintenance, to the point of endangering the children staying in them.

This was the finding of the 2017 report of the Tel Aviv District of the Health Ministry’s National Environmental Health Department. The ministry warns that although steps were taken against some of the educational institutions, the situation in many of them, particularly preschools, is unsatisfactory and not properly addressed, one reason being that responsibility is divided unclearly among various bodies – such as local authorities, the education, health and economy ministries – and most of the private preschools (except for those belonging to the Economy Ministry) are not supervised at all.

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The Tel Aviv District, with about 1.5 million residents, includes 10 cities (Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Bnei Brak, Holon, Bat Yam, Or Yehuda, Herzliya, Kiryat Ono and Ramat Hasharon) and two local councils (Azur, Kfar Shmaryahu). There are over 1,800 private and established preschools (ages up to 5), about 200 daycare centers, and almost 600 schools. The gaps in the physical and sanitary conditions of these institutions can be great, and sometimes vary between neighborhoods or even between two adjacent preschools.

However, an examination by the Health Ministry demonstrates that a substantial percentage were described as high-risk, which requires immediate enforcement by the municipality, or as medium-risk, which allows time for improvement before steps are taken.

The ministry conducts sanitary inspections in public education institutions only based on reports and complaints from the public, which are usually found to be justified. In 2017, 775 preschools for ages up to 5 were inspected, 740 were found to be at medium or high risk.

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Such a preschool may include a series of deficiencies in sanitation and work procedures, cleanliness levels and maintenance of infrastructure and equipment, explains Valerie Pohoryles, the department director and district engineer for environmental health “We discover, for example, the serving of food whose expiration date has passed, or storage and serving of food at an unsuitable temperature, a failure to ensure the hygiene of the children themselves, of drinking bottles and water coolers, mattresses for sleeping and up to deficient maintenance of infrastructure – sandboxes, game facilities or toys that could cause illnesses and contagion.”

An inspection last September at a preschool with 26 children ages 3 to 5 was conducted after a report of children becoming ill because of cat feces. They found broken facilities, polluted sand that hadn’t been changed in a long time, old and unsafe equipment inside the preschool. The caterer that provides the food lacks the required licenses, and the food arrives at 11 A.M. and waits in storage containers until 2 P.M. The level of cleanliness in the kitchen is poor, and dry food was found open without sealed plastic containers that preserve the freshness of the food and prevent contact with contaminants and rodents.

In another preschool, with 25 children aged 4-1/2 to 6, open packages of bread that had passed their expiration date were found in the freezer and the refrigerator, with the bread defrosted in the microwave every day, and a forgotten tray of potatoes from the day before was found in the oven. It was also found that the reinforced security room is inaccessible, since it is used as a storage area with items scattered all over the floor, that the air conditioner vents are full of dust, and the windows lack screens to keep out pests, and the yard is full of cats that apparently leave their feces there too. There is also a long list of maintenance deficiencies.

These examples are not unusual, but are typical of many hundreds of preschools in the greater Tel Aviv area, and probably in preschools throughout the country. These reports are sent to the municipality’s education department, the Education Ministry and the Economy Ministry. In many cases they receive no suitable response.

Of all the educational institutions, the worst are the private preschools (and the pre-nursery play groups), which in most cases are not under government supervision. The few pre-nursery play groups that are under supervision accept it voluntarily. Play groups are a flourishing industry in the center of the country, and even the Health Ministry finds it difficult to keep track and to visit.

“The intensive construction in the Tel Aviv district brings with it a demand for private frameworks for children under 3, which are opened without any supervision. There are private places where we are forced to enter with police accompaniment in order to conduct inspections, because the owners won’t allow us to enter,” says Pohoryles.