One week from Wednesday, 2.4 million children and some 260,000 teachers are to begin the new school year – the third school year held in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. This is not a last-minute surprise. And still, students, parents and teachers are approaching the date with a number of troubling questions still unresolved. The education and health ministries are finding it difficult to present an orderly plan.
The usual explanation for the failure of the previous education ministers, Rafi Peretz and Yoav Gallant, to deal with the virus, was their unfamiliarity with the education system and the meager interest they showed in it. In contrast, Yifat Shasha-Biton is well acquainted with the system, both its advantages and its limitations. For precisely this reason, she should have been able to do a much better job with the preparations.
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On Sunday night, the coronavirus cabinet approved an additional version of the plan for beginning the school year, with two main points: School will start on September 1, as usual, and students 12 and up who have not been vaccinated will be able to get the vaccine at school, during school hours, with parental permission. Shasha-Biton agreed with the first point, but opposed the second. One may question the source of the education minister’s objection to vaccinations in the schools, as has been the practice for decades, and especially the time and energy spent on it. It would have been better to devote those precious resources to preparations for the start of the school year.
These preparations include the decision to require teachers and other school employees to obtain a Green Pass showing proof of vaccination or of recovery from COVID-19. Although this issue was discussed in various forums in recent weeks it seems once again the government was caught unprepared: Even 48 hours after the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, the policy regarding some 30,000 school employees who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or who choose not to get the vaccine was still unclear. Questions such as who will pay for the coronavirus tests for unvaccinated teachers, whether they will be placed on unpaid leave and, in that event, who will replace them in the classroom, are still under discussion. There’s plenty of time.
The decision to restrict antibody blood tests to children age 3-12 undermines the plan formulated by the Education Ministry. It’s too soon to know whether rapid antigen swab tests for 1.9 million students, two days before the start of the school year, will provide the required level of protection. Even less clear is the scope of the pilot program meant to allow elementary students who have been exposed to an infected person to continue to attend classes as long as they are tested daily for the coronavirus for a week.
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What is known is that just a few days before the start of the school year, organizational chaos reigns. The lessons of the past two school years have not been learned, and once again children and parents are paying the price. This is a failure of the education minister and the government.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.