Due to heat wave, Israel temporarily lifts mask requirement in schools, outdoors

Waiver in place until end of week after widespread threats to close schools if no change made to mask laws amid soaring temperatures

Students and teachers wear protective face masks as they return to school, at Hashalom School in Mevaseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Students and teachers wear protective face masks as they return to school, at Hashalom School in Mevaseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edlestein has lifted the requirement for students to wear masks in schools and for all Israelis to wear them outdoors until the end of the week, due to the severe heat wave affecting the country.

“We need to take coronavirus protections seriously. But the heat wave can be dangerous in itself,” Edlestein said in a statement early Tuesday morning. “Following the advice of the medical authorities, I have decided to lift the requirements for masks as long as there are no large gatherings.”

The Health Ministry said “there is no obligation to wear a mask for students in schools, and also those who are in open areas and buildings without air conditioning, except during gatherings.”

The exemption applies until the end of the week, the ministry said.

Education Ministry Director-General Shmuel Abuav earlier sent a letter to the Health Ministry’s outgoing director general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, saying the mandatory face masks made studies impossible and demanding a cancellation of the policy.

“Over the last two days we have been contacted by hundreds of students, indicating that mandatory masks during the heatwave is a demand that can’t be met. There may be air conditioning in class, but the heat is still unbearable and many students say it is impossible for them to concentrate,” he wrote.

Shmuel Abuav of the Education Ministry speaks at the 16th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to Health Ministry requirements, students in the fourth grade and up must cover their mouths and noses with masks during classes out of fear of spreading the novel coronavirus. Younger children must wear masks only while outside the classroom.

The series of blisteringly hot days that began Saturday was expected to last until Thursday. Meteorologists said it could end up being the longest such event on record in Israel.

In Tel Aviv and Eilat, temperatures reached 40.3° Celsius (104.5° Fahrenheit). North of the Dead Sea, temperatures hit 43°C (109°F) while the coolest places in the country, other than the Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, were Ashdod at 27°C (80°F) and Ashkelon at 25°C (77°F), Channel 12 reported. In the capital, Jerusalem, the temperature reached 36°C (96.8°F).

Several cities canceled school classes Monday and Tuesday because of the high heat combined with the need for stifling face masks.

The renewed shutdowns came just as the country’s schools reopened this week, following two months of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In Rishon Lezion, some parents said they would keep their kids home for next few days to protest the mask requirement during the heat wave.

In other cities, including Herzliya, municipalities said classes would be canceled on Tuesday. Tel Aviv has told each school to decide on its own whether to scrap lessons.

School children wearing protective face masks preparing to go back to school, May 16, 2020. (Chen Leopold/ Flash90)

Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen told Channel 12 news that he had also decided to cancel classes for older students until Sunday.

Walla news quoted the Pediatricians Association calling for students to be exempt from the mask requirement.

“Kids wearing masks for long hours is not practical and borders on extremely difficult. Masks that become soaked with sweat are unsustainable,” the organization was quoted as saying.

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