The aggressive push to fully reopen U.S. schools during the coronavirus crisis, accompanied by the “Don’t worry, everything will be fine” stance coming from the Trump White House and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, feels hauntingly familiar to Israelis.
DeVos declared on CNN recently that kids “need to get back in the classroom. Families need for kids to get back in the classroom. And it can be done safely.” At the same time, President Donald Trump has attacked the cautious recommendations put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the way schools should be reopened.
Trump tweeted that they were “very tough & expensive guidelines” and that the CDC was “asking schools to do very impractical things.” He even threatened to withhold federal funding from states that fail to fully reopen in the fall.
Israelis came to a similar conclusion in May. At that point, unlike the United States, Israel was at a point where COVID-19 infection numbers were low enough to reasonably contemplate doing so. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been one of the world’s first leaders to put the country in an early, tough lockdown and, at first, advocated a slow, careful return to the classroom for the nation’s children.
Indeed, for the first few weeks, school openings in May were done cautiously and gradually. But a combination of arrogance, impatience, bureaucracy and Trump-like complaints about impracticality and expense led to hasty decisions to let go of the reins entirely, sending all of the country’s schoolchildren back to class en masse.
The fateful results of this exercise taught Israel’s leaders – and parents – some hard lessons it might be helpful to share with U.S. school districts who are deciding whether to take the plunge in September.
1. Avoid magical thinking
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Once you open schools, be prepared for them to close and then reopen. Repeatedly. Expecting schools to welcome students without expecting infections to frequently occur is an exercise in magical thinking.
Israel fully opened all classrooms on May 17, trusting that the country’s low infection rates meant that students could have an in-person completion of their school year. Israeli schools traditionally finish at the end of June.
The plan was for the youngest students, from kindergarteners to third-graders, to continue attending school until August in a “day camp in school” format, allowing their parents to return to work.
But by the beginning of June, Israel – which is about the size of New Jersey – saw outbreaks occur in over 50 schools, despite attempts to maintain social distancing and minimize mixing between students in various classes and grades. These attempts proved ineffective, though, as it was impossible to hermetically seal classrooms from each other.
Tracing found that infected teachers who taught multiple classes infected students in each class. As a result, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students were exposed to the virus and spread it to family members at home and beyond, contributing to the resurgence of infections in the general Israeli population.
Recent Health Ministry research found that in a breakdown of 727 people infected outside the home between July 10 and July 16, around a third (210) contracted the virus in educational institutions.
While the statistical sample was small, the proportion of those infected in schools still looms large compared to the 123 people infected at events, 106 in religious institutions, 89 in entertainment venues and 48 in the workplace.
In every school that shut so students could self-isolate for 14 days, studies were disrupted. This is why a binary debate between online learning and returning to class in-person is incomplete: It ignores the fact that schools that open are inevitably going to have to periodically pivot back to online tools when they are temporarily closed because of infection.
Teachers, administrative staff, parents and students in schools that reopen need to be prepared for this. Procedures should be in place so that when it happens, everyone knows how to behave and to transition back to remote learning for the quarantine period – and be ready to reintegrate again when they come back to school after self-isolating. Without such plans in place, it’s pointless for schools to even bother reopening.
2. Protect older and immunocompromised teachers
Israel hit a depressing milestone over the weekend: the first death of a teacher believed to have been infected with the coronavirus in the classroom. Two weeks before she died, kindergarten teacher Shalva Zalfreind, a 64-year-old mother and grandmother from central Israel, sent a text message to the parents of her students, calling out families who sent their children to school despite the fact that some of the members of their immediate family were infected and in self-isolation.
In her message, Zalfreind begged her students’ parents to stop the practice for the sake of “grandparents, neighbors and older uncles/aunts who surround us and do not deserve to die, even if they have preexisting medical conditions.”
Zalfreind and her peers were not permitted to use their sick leave to protect themselves from the virus: sick days were only granted for those already infected. She and other teachers were given no choice other than continuing work at high risk to their health – or be laid off.
Because of the rigidity of teachers’ unions in Israel, there has been little room for creative out-of-the-box solutions that could reduce risks for teachers and also benefit students. For example, older or immunocompromised teachers could be matched with students around the country who are high-risk themselves or live with at-risk immediate family members, and pop-up virtual classrooms or tutoring sessions could be created. The development of large-scale, creative online alternatives to classrooms is still in the early stages, but may push forward if the virus shows no signs of abating.
3. A dangerous age
After their experience with school outbreaks, Israel didn’t need to wait for this week’s major study coming out of South Korea to learn that kids aged 10 to 19 spread the virus just as easily and efficiently as adults – perhaps even more so.
Unfortunately, Israel’s experience has shown that this particular age group is also the least likely to obey directives to wear masks and socially distance. In fact, younger children are far more compliant.
Israeli teachers quickly threw up their hands when it came to the task of policing students to wear masks and socially distance. And since most teachers didn’t do it themselves, as it was difficult to conduct classes while masked, they served as poor role models.
After Israel decided to return to full classrooms, crowded with 30 to 40 students, proper distancing was deemed impossible. And less than a month back in session, many middle schools and high schools reverted to distance learning, either partially or completely, as school after school shuttered because of coronavirus outbreaks.
Chastened, and with infection rates soaring nationwide, the current plan for the coming school year is for fifth- to 12-graders to prepare for online classes in September. Fully opening middle and high schools was, essentially, deemed a failed experiment.
4. The little kids are alright (mostly)
The new South Korean study backed up other research, which determined children that under 10 were far less likely to infect others with the virus than their older siblings.
Back in May, when young Israeli children in K-3 classrooms were confined to small groups of 15 or fewer (so-called capsules) – before the country lost patience and returned them to large groups – the spread of the virus appeared to be minimal. When infections began to rise nationally recently, the young children who remained at school in summer session returned to this format.
Right now, the Education Ministry’s plan for September is to keep kindergarteners through fourth-graders in school, with smaller class sizes – a plan that will force the country’s education system to add 20,000 teachers and assistants to its ranks. But because the infection rate is lower, and because sending young children home would be a tremendous blow to the economy as it would force parents to miss work, it has been determined that the risk is worth it.
With older children, despite the terrible price to be paid when it comes to their education and socialization, the greater threat to the nation’s health has been deemed more important. As a result, Israeli kids over the age of 10 will begin the 2020-21 school year with remote learning from home. Where they – and their American counterparts – will be by the end of that year remains an open question.