Some 2.4 million students, 200,000 school and kindergarten teachers and slightly over 5,000 school principals launched the new school year yesterday, under the looming shadow of the coronavirus. The schoolchildren were accompanied by millions of parents, who followed with growing concern the way the Education Ministry was getting ready to implement the surprising decision to begin the school year.
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The unnecessary farce over the opening of schools in so-called “red” cities can be laid at the feet of Education Minister Yoav Gallant. This is but one more example of the incompetence of the government in its ongoing handling of the pandemic.
The latest scuffle between Gallant and coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu demonstrated the damage caused by the aggressive management style adopted by the former, which was reflected in the confusion and uncertainty besetting thousands of parents, as well as in the weakening of the clout wielded by education professionals. Up until the coronavirus cabinet session on Monday night, a few hours before schools were scheduled to open, Gallant continued to state that the school year would open throughout the country, including in cities where the rate of infection was high. He claimed that “this decision was made following a situation assessment and an orderly analysis of the data, taking into account recommendations made by professionals.”
An attempt to find out what data and which professionals he was referring to led nowhere. In contrast, Prof. Gamzu and the experts advising him were of one mind – that the opening of schools in “red” cities would lead to an outbreak of increased infections there, as well as in other cities. The decision not to open schools in these cities is in force until Thursday. After that, the disputes could resume.
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The outline proposed by Gallant for opening schools could exacerbate gaps between students, gaps that place Israel at the bottom of the rankings in international scholastic achievement. The decision by which schoolchildren in grades 5 to 12 will engage in remote learning for half a week is not feasible for many of them. According to the ministry’s own figures, there is a shortage of 150,000 computers in students’ homes, mainly in the lower socioeconomic sectors of the population. The ministry has admitted that only half of this number will be made available by the end of 2020, with the rest arriving in the second half of the school year.
Gallant’s conduct so far raises concerns that he is ill-equipped to handle the unprecedented challenges that are present this year, including the management of teaching under new circumstances and the addressing of the widening gaps between students. A gigantic education system, complex and divided, does not need an all-knowing commander who lays down the law, nor does it need bombastic declarations such as “students must know that the education minister is not afraid,” as he declared a few days ago. These only expose the limits of the ability to act and to think things through, which come with a tightly-controlled Education Ministry.
More than in the past, what is needed now is to listen to people on the ground, to teachers and principals, to people running local authorities as well as to parents’ groups.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.