Bar-Ilan University switches to distance learning in bid to stem COVID morbidity

School says it will use Zoom for class until end of 1st semester in mid-January; education minister seeks to ease rules for closing high schools to only apply to infected classes

The Bar-Ilan University campus in Ramat Gan (CC BY-SA Bar-Ilan University/Wikimedia Commons)
The Bar-Ilan University campus in Ramat Gan (CC BY-SA Bar-Ilan University/Wikimedia Commons)

Bar-Ilan University, the second-largest academic institution in Israel, announced Sunday that it was switching to remote learning until the end of the first semester as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, driving infections throughout the country.

The university said in a statement that, starting Tuesday, it will begin to use the Zoom video conferencing app for classes, a policy that will continue until the semester ends on January 14.

“Although there is no change in the [government] guidelines so far, we have made a decision to move studies to Zoom in order to minimize contact as much as possible and help stop the chain of contagion,” the university said in a statement that noted that it was constant contact with the Health Ministry and the Council for Higher Education in Israel.

It said that research activities, practical training, laboratory studies, and tests scheduled to be conducted on campus will take place as usual. Libraries will also remain open for students on campus, though reception at departments and administrative units was also to move online.

The university said an update about arrangements for examinations will be sent out in the coming days.

Bar-Ilan stressed the need for diligence in using face masks on campus and said that Green Pass rules will be applied — limiting entry only to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or who tested negative in the past 72 hours.

The change was only to be applied at the university’s main campus in Ramat Gan, not its medical faculty in the northern city of Safed, where the local administration will decide on its own arrangements, the statement said.

Other universities, including the country’s largest, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have not made a similar move to distance learning.

People line up in a queue at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures published Sunday morning showed that 4,197 new cases were confirmed on Saturday, a figure affected by reduced testing on weekends, with the rate of positive tests rising to 4.57 percent. Daily new infections in Israel have spiked from under 1,000 new cases some 10 days ago to almost 5,500 on Friday, and active cases have almost tripled in a week to 31,958. The total confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic stand at close to 1.4 million.

However, serious cases have seen a far more moderate increase, from 77 on December 22 to 110 on Sunday. The death toll remained at 8,244. There have been four COVID-related deaths in the country since December 21.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton intends to push for keeping high school students in class as much as possible rather than sending them to distance learning and will seek to ease the so-called traffic light rules currently being applied to 7th- to 12th-graders.

Under the existing rules, schools where fewer than 70% of students are vaccinated and that are located in communities designated “red” due to high coronavirus infection rates must switch to distance learning. Shasha-Biton said Saturday that the method was closing too many schools and that she preferred that the rules be more selective, applying only to each class where there is a confirmed COVID case among the students in “red” communities.

“There is no reason for entire classes to automatically switch to distance learning when they have no confirmed cases,” she said. “In a class where there is a confirmed case, the rules for vaccinated and non-vaccinated will apply to those who have been exposed, rather than close the entire school.”

However, the Health Ministry wants to see the existing arrangement continued. Over Sunday and Monday, some 1,500 classes numbering 45,000 students were to move to distance learning due to the virus spread.

Education Ministry figures show that there are currently 7,911 confirmed infected students and 51,703 who are in quarantine. In addition, there are 2,246 education staff in isolation. Fifteen schools and five kindergartens have been closed due to infections.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset Education Committee is to meet Monday to discuss a Health Ministry request to extend the traffic light program as it is, as well as to review other possible plans for the education system. The traffic light plan is set to expire on Monday at midnight.

Bar-Ilan’s move came as a leading health expert advising the government on the COVID pandemic predicted that one out of every three or four Israelis will be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the next three weeks and warned the country would run out of virus testing kits under the burden.

In an official report handed to the coronavirus cabinet and in a series of media interviews, Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute estimated that 2-4 million out of Israel’s total population of some 9.5 million will end up catching Omicron, but the number of simultaneous serious cases won’t surpass the current record of approximately 1,200.

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