Editorial |

Israel's Education Minister Has Failed in Her Response to COVID

Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial
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Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaking at the coronavirus committee in Jerusalem in September.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaking at the coronavirus committee in Jerusalem in September.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset Spokesperson
Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial

According to the Education Ministry, 40,000 students and teachers have definitely contracted the coronavirus, and 78,000 are in quarantine. Given the recent change in testing policy, the actual numbers may be much higher, in part because the official statistics don’t include people who tested positive using home testing kits.

An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 – the latter is about 16 percent of all students in grades K-12 – were affected by class or school closures Sunday. This trend seems unlikely to reverse itself in the coming days; in fact, it may get worse. A clear picture is already emerging – Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has failed. She didn’t prepare the system for which she is responsible for a “routine emergency” footing.

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Shasha-Biton didn’t have to invent anything. Last summer, senior ministry officials discussed a report by the ministry’s strategy department that recommended a series of measures to enable schools to cope better with the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Implementing these recommendations would have reduced the chaos in the schools at least somewhat and provided space for significant educational activity. The pandemic has thus exposed and exacerbated the ministry’s known weak points – centralized, calcified management that is devoid of imagination and sanctifies the status quo even when it’s clear that it’s no longer working.

The report, titled “Learning lessons from the coronavirus era and operative recommendations for applying them,” was first reported by Haaretz (Or Kashti, January 9). It is based on an internal survey of the operations of all the ministry’s departments and districts. Reading it is infuriating. Even though the problems were correctly identified, Shasha-Biton and Yigal Slovik, the ministry director general she appointed (and then fired three weeks ago), were either unwilling or unable to take the necessary steps to correct them.

These problems include the ministry’s flawed decision-making process, its lack of basic data, outdated regulations, poor communication among ministry departments and poor communication with schools and local governments.

Some of the recommendations could have been implemented quickly. These include drawing up lists of outdoor spaces that could be used for small-group learning; reducing the time spent on certain subjects, especially in middle school, in favor of addressing social and psychological issues; and clarifying the division of authority and responsibility between the ministry and local governments. But none of this happened.

This absence of any preparation for a long-term crisis – either pedagogical or infrastructural – exacts a real price. Teachers, principals, students and parents are all paying it every day. Shasha-Biton has no right to abandon Israel’s students and teachers. If she doesn’t understand this, the prime minister should replace her with someone who does understand the magnitude of the responsibility her position entails.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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