Olmert vs. Sderot / As Qassams Fall, Sderot Kids Don't Want to Go Home

The Sderot school system is in a weird situation. Many pupils are simply in Eilat. There has been a dispute in recent days between the municipality and the Education Ministry. Local government wanted to broadcast business as usual and not remove most of the children in the school system from town. The ministry proposed more far-reaching plans. The compromise was sending eleventh and twelfth graders on intensive study retreats so they could catch up to their nationwide peers. The rest of the grades would go on educational breaks outside the town.

But Arcadi Gaydamak came along and shuffled the deck. No one yesterday could estimate how many school children were in Eilat. The chair of the parents' committee guessed 2,000, town hall estimated 300, and the Education Ministry announced that 1,000 students were in Eilat with no educational framework. Sources said the ministry sent inspectors to try and arrange matters, to try and oversee the children and if possible, to bring them back to Sderot.

The rest of the school children, the ones left in town, didn't know exactly what to do. There are about 4,000 children in the town's school system, including 1,000 preschoolers. Hundreds of elementary school children were sent on field trips to Tel Aviv and Beit Govrin. Others decided to stay in school.

The preschoolers showed up as usual, but in middle school and high school, attendance was very low. Children reported being among the very few who came to school. So some of them just went to the daily bus to Eilat Gaydamak provided, and fought for seats. A., one of the mothers, said "All the kids are in Eilat, why shouldn't she go?" Attendance at religious schools was higher.

A few hours after a Qassam landed not far from him on his way to school, Sderot sixth grader Eli Eliav didn't smile much during a class trip to Tel Aviv. About 500 students from five elementary schools visited Rabin Square and the Eretz Israel Museum on an Education Ministry trip before heading back to Sderot.

Eliav said two rockets have landed near him before, but yesterday's was the closest. "I saw the rocket in the air. Everyone tried to crowd into the bus stop." Eliav didn't want to return to Sderot. "If I could, I would leave town. How much more scared can I get of a Qassam falling on me?"

Many other kids on the trip also didn't want to go back to Sderot. One said, "We can't learn much in school because there are alerts all the time. The scariest is on the way to and from school because you always think: what if you can't find a place to hide?"

Others felt they should return to town. Sixth grader Moshe Abergil said, "My family is there. It is my home." But Sderot religious school principal Dina Hadad said only the worst-off families have stayed in town. "The parents are afraid to leave town because their salaries might be docked or they could get fired. Only those afraid of their employers' response are still in town, or the ones not connected to those organizing the Gaydamak buses."

A central cause of the disorder is the lack of defenses for the schools. The Home Front Command has reinforced some parts of the schools, and only about one-third of classrooms are reinforced. Angry parents petitioned the High Court of Justice to require the state to explain why all classrooms shouldn't be reinforced.

One reason for getting children out of town was to ensure that those remaining would all be attending reinforced classrooms. During a meeting in Jerusalem yesterday, Olmert ordered all classrooms through sixth grade be reinforced.

Home Front Command sources said this will require budgets and that it will take a week to estimate the cost and scope of reinforcement needed, as well as a preliminary estimate that the project would take three months to implement. Yesterday the Education Ministry said the high school students' retreats are slated to begin Tuesday in Be'er Sheva, while younger classes will be taken on field trips only in the Negev region.

Hadad, 80 percent of whose classrooms are reinforced, says the recent escalation has led to an increase in school violence and falling behind the curriculum. She says responsibility for the children in case a Qassam falls keeps her awake at night. "We haven't taken them outside for recess in three weeks. The school is a pressure cooker and no one knows when it will blow up. At the end of the day, I hurry the kids onto buses, and say 'thank heavens' the day is over. And then I start worrying about tomorrow."