Over 100 kindergartens have been shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks, including more than 50 which have been shuttered just since Sunday, according to an Education Ministry report Tuesday.
Although relatively low compared to the 21,000 preschools, kindergartens and daycares nationwide, the rapidly multiplying shutdowns offer a preview as Israel gears up to open elementary schools Sunday amid falling infection rates.
There are currently 1,716 students who are infected with the virus, a drop of 475 since Sunday, the ministry said, according to Hebrew media reports.
However, the number of kindergartens closed due to infections among staff or children doubled during the same period from 56 to 112.
The figures came as the education system geared up to a reopening of grades 1-4 next week following a Monday cabinet decision to further ease a national lockdown that shuttered the entire system for over a month. Schools have been closed since September 18, when the nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen on October 18.
Numbers released by the ministry showed that school-age children were being infected in disproportionally small numbers. The figures seemed to contradict a state report, pilloried by the Education Ministry, which found that kids were more likely to get infected than others.
Among kindergarten-age children there are 255 active coronavirus carriers, about 2 percent of the 12,890 active cases in the country, although children of that age represent 6.48% of the national population, according to ministry figures.
The Knesset Education Committee, which met to review the cabinet plan for bringing grades 1-4 back to schools, rejected as too onerous a proposal to allow pods of 15 students to meet for studies out of doors while maintaining a distance of 100 meters between capsules.
The committee demanded that pods be allowed to have up to 19 students and one teacher, with the distance between capsules reduced to just 50 meters. The panel noted that under current lockdown rules the general public is permitted to gather out of doors in groups of up to 20 people anyway.
The committee will meet again on Wednesday after Health and Education ministries have updated the regulations to match the request.
The planned opening of elementary schools has been heavily overshadowed by a dispute between the Education and Health ministries over capsules for first and second grade students.
Under the plan given the okay Monday by ministers for indoor studies, children in third and fourth grade will be divided into pods and resume studies five days a week, while those in first and second grade will be split into two groups that will alternate days and go to school only three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.
The Education Ministry has insisted it does not have the money, the space or the time to plan for splitting up first and second grade classes full time, but parents and others say half-time school will force them to miss work half the time, and local authorities have sought their own solutions instead.
The head of the Israel Teacher’s Union Yaffa Ben-David called on school principals to not prepare to reopen their classrooms until the Education Ministry provides clear instructions for how studies will be held, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.
“Until the Ministry of Education publishes an outline with clear guidelines, the principals will not prepare outlines or act according to outlines of the local authority,” she wrote in a letter to the principals. “As we know, our employer is the Ministry of Education and not the authorities.”
The reopening of the school system on September 1 in the wake of an earlier national lockdown has been partially blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.
Following an initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.
Since the beginning of the virus outbreak, 311,622 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus. There have been 2,463 deaths.