As the government began to ease restrictions on the economy put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, the Education Ministry on Sunday became the target of a growing storm of parental frustration and anger over its remote learning program and the fact that teachers have been unwilling to give up more of their summer vacation.
Israel’s 2.2 million elementary, middle and secondary school students have been housebound since March 13, following a government decision to shut down schools in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Schools at that point switched to remote learning, which was briefly aborted then restarted a few days later, amid complaints that families don’t have access to enough computers for each child. In addition, the supposedly state-of-the-art interactive remote learning platform suffered numerous glitches and both parents and teachers have said the system was ill-equipped to cope and encourages children to spend too much time in front of a screen.
The teachers’ union on Sunday slammed the Finance Ministry’s plan for students to be taught 50 percent of the required hours now, with the remaining 50% to be taught by extending the school year into the summer vacation period.
“We were the first to enlist in the current crisis and gave nine days of summer vacation, which is worth NIS 450 million a day [to the treasury]. There is no union that has donated so much money on its own…. Now the treasury is trying to take advantage of the situation, inciting against the teaching staff, agitating the parents — and all with a view to robbing [teachers] of their summer vacation,” they said in a statement.
The union added that the distance learning program, when used effectively, can be a good way to maintain contact between teachers and students. On Sunday, preschoolers also began to participate in remote teaching programs.
But the committee representing parents said the current situation showed “blatant and inconsiderate disregard” for parents who are unable to effectively work and will face similar problems into the summer.
“[We] require the Israeli government and education minister to acknowledge the dire failure of distance learning and immediately cancel summer vacation in July and also hold classes in the first two weeks of August. There is blatant disregard for parents in the State of Israel,” the committee said in a statement.
“Learning remotely in its current form is a sad joke that has not been tested in depth,” the committee added. “It looks great in presentations, but is not practical in any way or application and actually puts the burden of teaching at home on parents’ shoulders, who also need to work from home. As long as our requirement is not met, we will allow alternatively, as a condition for continued distance learning, to arrange for a computer for every child.”
Responding to the growing storm, Education Minister Rafi Peretz said Sunday, on the first day back to school after the Passover vacation, that the system was not mandatory.
“There is nothing compulsory here,” wrote Peretz in a Facebook post. “We have built many tools and each principal and teacher will decide how he uses these tools.
“The coronavirus should not widen the gaps in education, so it is incumbent on the principals, teachers and, of course, parental assistance, to make every effort,” he said.
The director-general of the Education Ministry, Shmuel Abuav, told the Kan public broadcaster that he expects summer vacation to be shortened, although it was unclear whether he meant beyond the nine days already agreed upon with the teaching union.
“Nobody has set a mandatory education law, but you can’t say we didn’t do anything and didn’t create a timetable,” he said. “The child has the option of being in a day of education from morning until afternoon, but it is not intended that they will be continuously in front of a screen for that time.”
Earlier this month the Education Ministry announced that high school students will take a reduced number of exams for their final bagrut matriculation grades. Exams will begin June 22 and students will take only three to five exams instead of the usual six or seven.
There will be a compulsory examination in mathematics, and then English and Hebrew or Arabic (according to the student’s language). Students can take an exam in either civics, literature, history or Bible studies. In addition, they can be tested in the field of sciences — chemistry, physics, biology or computer science.
Consideration will be given for the disruption to studies and the exams will be spaced out over a period of five weeks, with only one subject per week. In some subjects, schoolwork will be taken into account and students will be examined through the use of more quizzes.