1 in 5 students in yeshiva ‘capsule’ program contracted COVID-19

TV report, citing state figures, indicates 6,500-7,000 out of 35,000 came down with coronavirus in August and September, despite safeguards

Yeshiva students study in separation capsules in Jerusalem on September 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yeshiva students study in separation capsules in Jerusalem on September 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One in five yeshiva students taking part in a government-approved “capsule” program during August and September contracted COVID-19, despite the program’s intended safeguards, according to a television report on Sunday.

Citing state figures, Channel 13 said some 6,500-7,000 yeshiva students out of 35,000 who participated in the program, which saw students isolated from the outside world for weeks to allow them to study, came down with the disease.

The information was disclosed by the state in response to a High Court of Justice petition by the Yisrael Hofsheet NGO, which seeks to block ultra-Orthodox yeshivas from reopening — or to allow other dormitory high schools to reopen under the same conditions.

In September, Haaretz reported that the capsule program was not being properly adhered to at many yeshivas, with students breaking their capsule isolation, and many sent home at the end of the term without receiving test results showing them to be negative for coronavirus — as had been required by the government as part of the program.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study Torah in small ‘capsule’ groups at the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in the city of Modiin Illit, August 24, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Schools around the country were shut in mid-September as Israel’s second wave surged to upwards of 9,000 new cases a day, prompting a nationwide closure over the Jewish holidays. The huge spike in cases — including a disproportionately high rate of infection among Haredim — was attributed to the reopening of yeshivas in mid-August and the general school system on September 1.

Since then, daycares and preschools were allowed to reopen on October 18, while the rest of schools remain closed. Many ultra-Orthodox elementary schools have reopened against the rules.

On October 16, multiple media reports said that the government has agreed on a plan to reopen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas according to the previously implemented “capsule” program. The plan, negotiated between the government’s coronavirus manager for the ultra-Orthodox community, Roni Numa, and top rabbis and yeshiva leaders, will see students return to school in isolated groups of up to 250, with multiple testing rounds. The groups will remain in isolation until the Hanukkah holiday in December.

Officials said the program would depend on morbidity rates among the Haredi population continuing their downward trend.

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