Itai Kroitoro, Yuval Pener, Inbar Haruvi and Mori Gohar haven’t been in school for more than a few days since the academic year began in September. Some of their 1.2 million peers in middle and high school have spent just a single day in class.
For the last nine months, Israel’s schools have been repeatedly opening and closing. Mostly, they’ve been closed. Education officials haven’t learned from past mistakes and have yet to find a formula for classes to return to semblance of normality. Treasury officials have treated the schools as a way of letting parents return to work, not as a value in their own right.
“We’ve been getting hundreds of inquiries from teenagers who talk about being at real risk – anxiety, loneliness, a sense of meaninglessness due to lack of routine, not to mention the human need for friends,” said Vered Windman, executive director of the National Council for the Child.
“Children right now feel as if there’s no horizon, that they’re in a fog,” she said, adding: “They don’t know at all if they’ll return to school this year. Some students started high school or middle school this year, but never got to know their friends and teachers.”
When the school year began September 1, students in grades five through 12 were allowed to attend class two or three days a week, so long as they were separated by capsules. But the sudden spike in coronavirus cases brought all that to an end after just two weeks.
Since then, they have been learning remotely via Zoom – a tool that has been shown to be an ineffective way to teach. Students are concerned that their school performance is going to be hurt.
The long absence from attending school has also taken a psychological toll on students.
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Parts of the economy are gradually opening up again after the end of the second lockdown in mid-October. However, for fifth- to 12th-graders, it’s not clear when they will be returning to school. The Education Ministry has yet to devise a long-term framework to restrict class sizes to small groups.
Even then, there are good odds that the government will impose a third lockdown at some point, sending students back home again.
Kroitoro, a 12th-grader in Haifa and chairman of the National Student and Youth Council, said schooling by Zoom has broken the strong link between learning and socializing for young people.
“Schools aren’t just about classroom teaching, but are an important social framework that enable teenagers to stay emotionally healthy,” he told TheMarker.
He warned that the long absence from the classroom was coming at the price of actual learning.
“Teenagers have been abandoning the education system because it’s an easy option not to connect to Zoom. There are many teenagers who can’t continue like this,” said Kroitoro, who has spent just two-and-half days in school so far this academic year.
“Sitting for eight or 10 hours in front of Zoom is inhuman,” he said. “It’s incompatible with our age and emotional needs. If decision-makers continue like this, it’s only a matter of time before we see a wave of suicides among teens. We’re already seeing signs of distress.”
Pener, a ninth-grader from Petah Tikva, said her school teaches continuously from early in the morning till 3:20 P.M. – but few students are paying much attention. “Students aren’t really listening to the lessons: they leave Zoom on, and go off and do something else,” she said.
“Most class time is wasted on calling out names and dealing with cameras,” she continued. “There are also a lot of distractions at home and a lot of technical glitches. It’s not just a case of one person complaining or one teenager having a hard time – it’s all of us,” she said, saying the schools should be open at least one day a week.
Haruvi, a 12th-grader from Hadera, said she had been left feeling abandoned by the school system and Israel’s leaders – a feeling that will reverberate over the coming years.
“It’s mainly the politicians who don’t understand that you need to invest for the long-term and that there’s an entire generation growing up without motivation,” she said. “Even if the coronavirus disappears, a generation of children is growing up here in distress, traumatized and wounded. Maybe this sounds overwrought, but that’s the situation.”
Haruvi said she knew many peers who were suffering depression and turning to drugs and alcohol, adding: “You can’t think about the future when you don’t have a present. You can’t think about your year of national service, about a pre-army academy [mechina] or army service.”
Gohar, a 12th-grader from Rishon Letzion, said he spends six to eight hours daily on Zoom lessons. The first lockdown last spring was easy to deal with, he recalled; many of his friends looked on it as a vacation. “But the second lockdown was no longer a joke – it really hurt me,” said the 17-year-old. He’s since learned to appreciate the routine of waking up in the morning and going to school.
He agreed with the other teenagers that teachers weren’t able to teach efficiently and quickly enough over Zoom to prepare students for their high school graduation exams (known in Israel as the bagruyot).
“I’m worried that, at this pace, a lot of students won’t be able to pass the bagrut,” he said. Looking further ahead, he added: “In another few years, our generation won’t be ready for work, so that when we come looking for jobs in high-tech they’ll tell us, ‘You’re from the coronavirus generation.’”
Gohar worried that the process of being branded a “lost generation” has already begun.
“Today, the stigma is beginning to be attached to us – and it’s not our fault,” he said. “On the other hand, there are also a lot of students who missed out – people with potential who are inherently smart and could succeed, but got trapped by the situation ... lots of lost talent.”