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2.4 million children start school year amid fears of new virus surge

Over 300 educational institutions to remain shut in cities with high infection rates; threat of strike still looms over issue of teachers at high risk from the virus

  • Elementary school students wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemic walk past a signs reads 'Happy New Year, Hello First Grade' on the first day of school in Kfar Yona, Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Elementary school students wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemic walk past a signs reads 'Happy New Year, Hello First Grade' on the first day of school in Kfar Yona, Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Young Israeli students on their first day back at school, at Gavrieli school, in Tel Aviv, September 01, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    Young Israeli students on their first day back at school, at Gavrieli school, in Tel Aviv, September 01, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
  • Israeli children attend class during the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Israeli children attend class during the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Israeli kids arrive for the start of the new school year in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020(Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
    Israeli kids arrive for the start of the new school year in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020(Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
  • Israeli school teachers speak with students on the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Israeli school teachers speak with students on the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Israeli parents escort their children for the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Israeli parents escort their children for the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • An elementary school student wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic makes her way to class on the first day of school in Kfar Yona, Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    An elementary school student wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic makes her way to class on the first day of school in Kfar Yona, Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Jerusalem's mayor meets with young Israeli twins going into first grade at a school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
    Jerusalem's mayor meets with young Israeli twins going into first grade at a school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

With new pencil cases and bottles of hand sanitizer, 2.4 million schoolchildren in Israel kicked off the academic year on Tuesday morning amid fears educational institutions could act as potential major infection vectors.

Israel’s swift reopening of schools in May — after nearly eradicating the disease with strict lockdowns over the preceding months — was seen as a serious factor in the marked resurgence of the pandemic at that time.

But tens of thousands of pupils will remain home after a last-minute late-night decision to keep institutions shuttered in areas with high rates of virus transmission, including 332 schools and 716 preschools and kindergartens.

“The school year is opening for 2.5 million students, contrary to all predictions. We hope to bring back as soon as possible the 130,000 students in red cities,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Kan news, referring to towns with high morbidity rates.

Classes will be held according to the Education Ministry’s “Safe Learning” plan, which was developed in response to the pandemic and will see full-sized classes for the first two grades, capsules — small groups — for grades 3 and 4, and an emphasis on distance learning for grades 5 through 12.

Kindergartens will operate as usual, with classes at their usual sizes.

According to a report earlier this month, tens of thousands of students do not have access to the computers or internet connections required for effective distance learning.

Still looming was the threat of a strike by teachers, who have at this time agreed to delay possible action over the issue of teaching staff who are at high risk due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Israel Teachers Union said no solution has been found for workers deemed to be at high risk for the virus, particularly primary school teachers and 1,500 kindergarten staff.

Preparations for the new school year at Orot Etzion school in the settlement of Efrat, on August 17, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

If no compromise is reached, the strike will begin on Thursday, the union said. It is is demanding full sick pay for those unable to work due to the pandemic, whereas the treasury is proposing furloughing such staff members or allowing early retirement where applicable.

Hours before the school year was set to begin on Tuesday morning, government ministers voted Monday night to accept the recommendation of Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, to keep educational institutions shut in areas with high infection rates.

Monday’s decision was a reversal for the ministers, who on Sunday had voted in favor of the “traffic light” proposal which had excluded schools from the plan to impose localized closures on towns based on morbidity rates and allows the rest of the country to remain open.

The plan is meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, with “red” localities subject to the strictest limitations, followed by “orange,” “yellow” and “green” ones, with the latter enjoying the loosest rules regarding social distancing, especially when it comes to restrictions on gatherings in outdoor and indoor spaces.

Monday’s decision means schools will remain closed in Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Daliyat al-Karmel, Beitar Illit, Jat, Tira, Ein Mahil, Immanuel, Kfar Qasm, Ussefiya, Shaar Hanegev, Kafr Kanna, Rehasim, Zemer, Al Batuf, Laqiya, Beit Jann, I’billin, Maale Meron, Kafr Bara, Jaljulia, Nahal Sorek, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre and Jadeidi-Makr.

The order keeping the schools closed lasts until Thursday, when the coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet again to reassess the situation.

Illustrative: Yehud Comprehensive High School students take their mathematics English matriculation examination (Bagrut), in Yehud, July 8, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Tuesday said the total number of coronavirus cases in Israel since the pandemic began had risen to 117,030, with 2,159 new cases diagnosed throughout the previous day.

The death toll stood at 939, with no change since Monday night.

Of the 891 people currently hospitalized with the virus, there were 436 people in serious condition, with 116 on ventilators. Another 186 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 29,735 tests had been conducted Monday.

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