As the school year opened under the pandemic’s shadow, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited a school in the southern town of Yeruham and said he would do all in his power to ensure schools stay open, but could not offer guarantees.
Almost 2.5 million Israeli students from kindergarten to 12th grade started school Wednesday, despite record virus numbers and with officials acknowledging the return to classes could spark a further rise in infections. Some 210,000 students needed to study via Zoom, due to health restrictions, but the Education Ministry said over 90 percent of students showed up for school on the first day, far exceeding expectations.
“For me, the first day of the school year is always very moving,” Bennett said, touring the school alongside Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana. “I think that we are all happy that summer vacation is finally over.”
Figures published Tuesday showed Israel with the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new daily coronavirus cases per million people. Despite the spike, Bennett’s government resisted calls by some to delay the opening of schools, instead instituting special rules for high-infection areas and undertaking a massive testing program for all schoolkids ahead of the school year.
“Together with the education and health ministries, we held the largest testing campaign in the history of the State of Israel,” he said. “In one day, two million tests were carried out for all of Israel’s schoolkids so that we could reach this moment of the opening of the school year.”
“We learned this year that there is another important thing, and that is… making sure that all the people of Israel can work and earn a decent living, even during the coronavirus pandemic, because it is a sacred thing,” Bennett said of his stated goal of avoiding lockdowns even amid record daily COVID-19 cases.
He pledged that “we will continue to make supreme efforts so that all Israeli students will be able to learn. We cannot guarantee that result, but we can guarantee 100 percent effort. This is what the education minister, the Health Ministry and all of us did to reach this day.
“Therefore, after a year of Zoom, a difficult year of staring into screens, I want to congratulate you, the pupils of Israel, with one blessing: May the year of screens come to an end, and may a year of experiences begin.”
President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal visited several schools in the city of Modiin alongside Mayor Haim Bibas.
“What a joy to see you here, and to open the new school year with you,” he said.
“I am guessing that you did not imagine that your first day would be so complicated in terms of masks, social-distancing guidelines, and yes, also concerns about quarantine and infections. Your generation has been through an unimaginable reality, and you will speak of this for decades to come.”
As various other ministers and municipal officials toured various institutions of education around the country, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited a special education school in Moshav Beit Oved that leads projects encouraging enlistment to the military for those with special needs.
Based on the Education Ministry’s plan for reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic, daycare centers, preschools and grades one and two will hold regular in-person learning five days a week in towns designated as green, yellow or orange based on their coronavirus figures.
In towns designated as red due to high case counts, daycares, preschools and grades 1 through 4 will still be allowed to continue learning in person. However, grades 5 through 7 will be required to learn outdoors or in small groups. Grades 8 through 12 will be required to learn outdoors if less than 70 percent of students are exempt from quarantine thanks to vaccination or recovery.
Under the Education Ministry’s updated guidelines, anyone other than a student who enters a school or daycare will have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result. Only tests authorized by the Health Ministry will be accepted.
Shasha-Biton said Tuesday that some 18,000 teachers in the education system have not been vaccinated, along with another 18,000 teaching assistants and other educational staff, and urged them to do so.
“This is a matter of personal example and commitment,” she said.
Staff who are not vaccinated must be tested every few days or they will not be allowed to work.
She also warned that the latest model for the reopening of schools in-person may need to be adapted based on case numbers in the coming weeks and months.
“Things need to be addressed in a targeted manner. We will constantly monitor what is happening in the education system,” she said, adding that her office had an obligation to provide children with a routine.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, more than 90,000 students are currently in quarantine due to either being infected or having come in contact with someone who tested positive. More than half of those who tested positive for the virus on Monday were school-aged children.