Following a marathon debate, the coronavirus cabinet early Tuesday approved Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s plan to reopen most schools across the country.
Following an eight-hour discussion, it was decided that high schoolers in areas designated green and yellow will go back to school on Sunday.
Middle schools will reopen the following Sunday, December 6. Schools in red zones, those with high morbidity rates, will remain closed.
Since the government began lifting the lockdown restrictions imposed in mid-September, grades 1-4 returned to class, with grades 5-6 joining them on Tuesday.
Gallant welcomed the decision and said he would “step up testing for students and school staff in order to safeguard your health.”
“For you, dear students, all you have to do is get your bags ready,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Separately on Monday, the daughter of leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said she had received instructions from her father ordering Haredi girls’ schools to open. In a letter to principals of Beis Yaakov schools, Leah Koldetsky wrote that her father was ordering them to resume studies for girls, which have been stopped for weeks.
Most ultra-Orthodox schools for boys have been open for weeks in defiance of government regulations, at Kanievsky’s orders.
Health officials had previously raised objections to the swift return of schoolchildren to class as the school system was seen as a major contributor to the spike in cases after an initial lockdown earlier this year was lifted, and that led to the second closure in September.
Gallant has pushed back against the health officials, claiming repeatedly that the education system did not contribute to the rise in infections.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Sunday he supported a return to school for all grades in cities with low infection rates, but only if it does not come in concert with other moves easing coronavirus restrictions.
Israel imposed a lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.
Officials, led by Netanyahu and Edelstein, have warned that if the number of daily cases diagnosed is not brought back under control, a third lockdown could be looming.
The coronavirus cabinet meeting comes as the average of new daily COVID-19 cases over the past week stood at 742, the highest rate since October 28, according to the country’s military-run coronavirus taskforce.
The transmission rate rose above 1 in the last days of October for the first time since a national lockdown began to be rolled back earlier in the month, and continued to rise before slackening slightly in early November. The figures released Monday, which are based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period, showed the figure on the rise again, hitting 1.07.
A transmission rate of over 1 indicates that the case numbers will begin to expand exponentially.
The coronavirus cabinet had initially decided that the lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, rollback measures are supposed to be halted if the rate rises. The government has ignored that benchmark, however, pressing on with reopening schools.