Bucking cabinet, virus czar insists schools shouldn’t open in hot zones

On eve of new academic year, Gamzu warns opening schools in high-infection areas ‘just not reasonable’; Netanyahu seems to back him

First grade students and their parents ahead of the opening of the school year at a school in Efrat on August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
First grade students and their parents ahead of the opening of the school year at a school in Efrat on August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Israel’s coronavirus czar said Monday he continued to oppose opening schools in areas with high infection rates — a day after the cabinet overruled him and okayed the start of the school year nationwide, and a day before the start of the school year.

“I intend to fight this, and not to let the school year open in ‘red’ cities,” he said, using the government’s color designation for areas where infection rates are high.

“It’s not the right risk to take… In a red city it won’t be possible to have a school without a confirmed case [of the virus], so I’m continuing to insist on this,” Gamzu said Monday at his weekly briefing to the media on Israel’s battle with the pandemic.

The cabinet on Sunday voted to accept Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan that imposes localized closures based on morbidity rates and allows the rest of the country to remain open — but excluded schools from the plan, effectively rejecting Gamzu’s demand that schools in high-infection localities remain closed.

Gamzu acknowledged on Monday the ongoing disagreement.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020 (Screengrab/Ynet)

“It doesn’t look good that I say one thing and the education minister [Yoav Gallant, who supports opening all schools] says another, but why take the risk?” he said.

“We’re in discussions to resolve this embarrassing problem,” he added.

He said the very fact that the education system was reopening at all on September 1 while the country was experiencing some 2,000 new confirmed infections daily was a serious risk.

Some experts, he said, had called him “crazy” for allowing it. “I’m doing it with a heavy heart, I’m not 100 percent sure. I don’t [like to] bet. But when it comes to the school systems in red cities, that’s just not reasonable in my view.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision on whether to open schools on Tuesday in “red” cities had yet to be made.

Medical workers at the Barzilay Hospital, in Ashkelon handle a coronavirus test sample on March 29, 2020 (Flash90)

“As I’ve said before, we’ll make the decision about the ‘red’ cities the night before” schools reopen Tuesday, Netanyahu told reporters at a press conference in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Monday evening. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”

He said the decision was deliberately pushed off to the last minute “to make sure there are as few ‘red’ cities as possible at the time the decision is made.”

Netanyahu seemed to suggest he supports Gamzu’s position, saying, “Most cities will open the school year, classes will open and schools will operate.”

In his briefing, Gamzu said he still believed his view would win out.

“I don’t think the Education Ministry would do that [open schools in red areas]. I didn’t compromise [on the issue], and I don’t think I need to compromise.”

Channel 12 reported Monday that the coronavirus cabinet was expected to rule later in the evening to close schools in hot zones.

Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, on May 3, 2020, in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While excluding schools, cabinet ministers unanimously approved Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan on Sunday evening, after several previous attempts to okay the scheme failed to pass the cabinet.

The plan is meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, with “red” localities subject to the strictest restrictions, 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.

Following the plan’s formal approval, the Health Ministry published on Monday the list of 24 “red” municipalities that showed the highest infection rates. Of the 24 municipalities, 16 were majority Arab and four majority Haredi.

The red municipalities are: 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 plan will only go into effect on September 6 and not at the beginning of the month as Gamzu had hoped, according to a joint statement from the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

People shop for school supplies in a shop in central Jerusalem, ahead of the beginning of the new school year, on August 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While Gamzu had pushed to have the schools included in the plan, with those institutions in locales with high infection rates forced to shutter (or delay opening), ministers immediately rejected the idea.

“The data regarding red towns is irrelevant to schools. They are an island of stability,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Gamzu during the coronavirus cabinet meeting, according to Channel 12 news.

Gamzu responded by saying that if ministers really wanted to dig their heels in on the issue, they would have to take on the responsibility if it backfires.

“My position has not changed. Opening the schools in ‘red’ cities will bring about a spike in infections in those cities and others,” Gamzu reportedly told the ministers at the Sunday meeting. “I will continue to fight this.”

Officials have expressed some fears over the looming opening of schools on September 1, seeing it as a potential major infection vector. 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.

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