Challenging Education Ministry, health chief urges COVID vaccination at schools

Nitzan Horowitz says his authority extend into schools; TV report says cabinet assailed Education Minister Shasha-Bitton at last meeting over her opposition

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a presentation of the COVID-19 Rapid test, at the Magen David Adom headquarters in Jerusalem, on August 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a presentation of the COVID-19 Rapid test, at the Magen David Adom headquarters in Jerusalem, on August 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz on Thursday reiterated his support for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in schools, stressing they are are the best place to reach youth who are not inoculated.

The comments marked an apparent challenge to the authority of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who opposes giving shots during the school day.

“We must make every effort to reach all those who are not yet vaccinated yet,” Horowitz told Channel 12 news.

After Israel appeared to have put the coronavirus pandemic behind it in June, the past two months have seen a rapidly accelerating spread in morbidity, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. The government has made vaccination its main weapon in beating back the resurgent virus, with shots now available to all those over the age of 12.

“Vaccinations should be done in the schools because that is the place where youths come,” Horowtiz said, making schools efficient locations for reaching unvaccinated children and, with the permission of their parents, inoculating them.

Acknowledging that Shasha-Biton is opposed to the idea, Horowitz said “the decision regarding vaccinations and everything to do with health is the decision of the health minister, and that is my authority according to the law.”

In an apparent challenge to Shasha-Biton over who has the final word on vaccinating children in schools, Horowitz added that “the authority over health, including inside schools, is that of the Health Ministry, that is the law.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset, on August 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the opening of the academic year just weeks away, the government has approved a plan on how to operate schools during the pandemic that will rely on extensive virus testing of pupils, in order to rapidly spot those who are infected and quarantine them and prevent them from passing on the virus to others.

However, September will also see the High Holidays, when schools are closed. With just nine scheduled study days scattered throughout the month, some have suggested delaying the school year until October, which would also give more time to clamp down on the wave of infections.

Nevertheless, Horowitz stressed the need to open the school year in September.

“There is importance for the children and the families to open the school year on time,” he said, noting that that was the purpose of developing the plan with all its reliance on virus testing.

Channel 12 reported that during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday night, when the government approved a tightening of restrictions on gatherings as a way to curb the virus spread, ministers rallied together in favor of vaccinations in schools while assailing Shasha-Biton for her objections to the scheme.

During the cabinet meeting, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli noted that other vaccinations, such as tetanus or papillomavirus, are also delivered in schools.

“I don’t understand the pedagogic claims,” Horowitz said, according to the report, which did not cite its sources.

Shasha-Biton responded that she has no objection to vaccinating children at schools, but not during study hours.

“So what’s the point to that?” Horowitz shot back. “When are they there? During studies. What is the point of vaccinating afterward?”

Israeli students going to school in Tel Aviv, on April 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen then suggested administering vaccines at the end of the day when parents come to collect their children, but Shasha-Biton objected that this could lead to tensions, due to the differences of public opinion on COVID-19 and vaccinations.

“A school should be protected space, sensitive and educational, and I don’t want to bring the whole discourse around the coronavirus into the school,” Shasha-Biton said. “Let [the children] have a bit of quiet.”

The Education Ministry’s determination to keep COVID-19 vaccines out of schools has reportedly extended to a government plan that aims to conduct serological tests on over 1.5 million pupils, to determine how many have virus antibodies, allowing those students to obtain quarantine exemptions and remain in the classroom, even after exposure to a known carrier.

The ministry is taking steps to make it more difficult for schools in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak to carry out the serological testing, Channel 12 reported on Wednesday.

There were 50,000 tests prepared for students, and written permission from parents received by the city. The ultra-Orthodox school system already opened at the beginning of this week.

However, the ministry reportedly told the municipality that serological testing will not be permitted to take place during school hours and can only be carried out in the presence of a parent, greatly reducing the chances that they would be done.

Shasha-Biton has courted controversy by calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.”

Last month, she was rebuked by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for feuding with health officials, and as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee during the last government, she struck down several virus restrictions passed by the cabinet.

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