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Education Ministry backs outdoor learning in step toward schools reopening

About-face comes after last-minute requirement by Health Ministry for first and second grade students to learn in small groups, which schools hadn’t prepared for

First grade students arrive for their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
First grade students arrive for their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Education Ministry announced Friday that it would back a plan allowing for students to learn outside in what will likely solve a dispute with the Health Ministry that risked keeping first and second grade students at home even longer.

Outdoor gatherings had been initially rejected by the Education Ministry earlier this week, Haaretz reported, revealing that officials in the office nixed an idea to allow informal meetings between small numbers of students outside. The idea had been proposed to assist children undergoing mental health complications due to the extended period away from their peers. The ministry had argued that the only gatherings it could approve were ones for official virtual learning sessions.

But during talks between health and education officials on Thursday aimed at devising a plan to reopen elementary schools at the beginning of next month, health experts declared that they would require small group “capsule” learning for first and second grade. The about-face forced education officials to prepare a plan that would allow the youngest elementary school students to return safely to schools in less than two weeks.

Education officials argued that they would require weeks of preparation, a budget of billions of shekels and would need to recruit thousands of teachers to pull the plan off. They had been preparing to reopen schools with typical class sizes as health officials had initially said capsules would not be necessary for first and second graders, ostensibly because they believed that the young students don’t contract and spread the virus as much as their older peers.

Ultimately, the Education Ministry officials decided Friday to allow outdoor learning in what will likely allow first and second grade students to return to in-person learning along with the third and fourth grades on November 1 as stated by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

According to the new Education Ministry plan, each outdoor learning pod is to comprise of no more than nine students, with each group at least 100 meters apart from another and teachers allowed to cycle between up to three groups. Students will be required to wear masks and maintain two meters (6.5 feet) of social distance between one another.

The plan, which was drafted in coordination with health officials, will be brought before the cabinet on Sunday for approval.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish kids from the Kretchnif Hasidic dynasty wearing face masks as they listen to their teacher at a school in the city of Rehovot, on September 10, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that next week he will propose increasing fines for educational institutions operating in violation of virus lockdown measures, after the reopening of some ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivas in defiance of the regulations.

Though schools nationwide have been officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary and high-school yeshivas — including in high infection areas — have opened in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.

Preschools and daycares were allowed to reopen on Sunday.

The current fine for schools that open in violation of the guidelines stands at NIS 5,000 ($1,481)

“This isn’t directed against someone, it is meant against something: against the virus and against the disease. I expect cooperation from everyone, without exception,” Netanyahu said, without calling out ultra-Orthodox communities by name.

Hebrew media reported this week though that the premier had reached a backdoor deal with Shas ultra-Orthodox party chairman Ayreh Deri that would see Netanyahu publicly chide Haredi towns and institutions that violate health guidelines while keeping enforcement against those offenders limited.

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