Education Ministry proposes reopening some schools starting May 3

Government set to weigh plan to relaunch preschools and 1st-3rd grades, expand special education class sizes

A closed school in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A closed school in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The government is set to weigh an Education Ministry proposal that would gradually reopen the education system and see thousands of preschoolers and elementary school kids return to class in the coming weeks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to discuss the issue with ministers and advisers on Monday.

According to the proposed plan, preschools and kindergartens will reopen on May 3 and children will attend in groups of 15. Each group will attend for half of each week to limit the spread of the virus.

Students in first through third grades would also return to school in groups of 15, with school officials staggering recesses to keep playgrounds from overcrowding.

Students in fourth grade through high school would continue remote learning programs.

Education Ministry Director-General Shmuel Abuav said Saturday that high schoolers studying for the bagrut matriculation exams may be able to do so in small groups of 10.

The report of the plan came as Israel was readying to take its biggest step toward reopening its economy, allowing many nonessential businesses to reopen for the first time in a month, as new virus cases and numbers of seriously ill have steadily declined in recent weeks.

Self-employed workers and kindergarten owners participate in a rally calling for financial support from the government outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The number of cases in Israel rose to 15,298 Saturday night, an increase of 260 over 24 hours, with fewer than 100 people on ventilators.

A total of 199 people in Israel have died of the coronavirus, according to Health Ministry statistics, which also show that no Israelis under age 20 were ever seriously ill with the virus.

Countries around the world have begun experimenting with pulling back some lockdown measures, amid increasing protests from business owners and others who have been forced to shutdown and have struggled to make ends meet, though health officials have also warned about a possible resurgence of the virus.

In Israel, where most parents both work full time, reopening the economy would necessitate a solution for younger children who cannot be left unsupervised. The Bank of Israel said Thursday that the shutdown of the education system was costing the economy around NIS 2.6 billion ($737 million) per week as many households have had to keep one parent tending to children instead of working.

The government last week allowed special education students to return to class under similar directives requiring small class sizes.

Abuav said that some 25,000 pupils returned to school over the past week in small groups of three “and it’s only the beginning.”

According to the plan, the special education programs will expand to include 7-8 children per class starting on May 3.

Students arrive at school after the Purim holiday outside Hadar Elementary School in Kfar Yona, on March 12, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Children in at-risk programs will also resume school and different programs starting next week, he added.

Schools have been shut since mid-March as the government began imposing wide restrictions on movement in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Most instructors have continued to teach via teleconferencing, though the program has been met with reports of only middling success.

According to the Education Ministry proposal, teachers will teach remotely on a half-time basis starting May 3 and complete the other half during summer break, which normally takes place in July and August.

Abuav indicated that some schooling may extend into August to make up for lost time.

However, Israel Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben-David rejected any such extension and said the teachers will never agree to it, according to Channel 12.

Last week, Ben-David gave a fiery TV interview in which she insisted teachers would not work in July, defying the Education Ministry’s directives that said summer vacation would be shortened due to the pandemic.

The Education Ministry has said it will extend the academic year through July and begin summer vacation in August. Summer vacation in Israel begins July 1.

The government began gradually lifting restrictions last week and approved a new series of directives set to take effect at midnight on Saturday.

According to the new directives, stores that aren’t in shopping malls will be allowed to operate if they adhere to guidelines on hygiene, protective gear and social distancing. Hairdressers and beauty salons can also resume operations from midnight Saturday, if hygiene regulations related to the virus are adhered to.

A man walks past closed stores in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on April 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health officials have cautioned against reopening schools too early, stressing concerns that children may infect each other widely and that while they themselves may be able to weather the virus, their parents and grandparents will have a harder time doing so.

“The reinstatement of the education system will come at the cost of human lives,” Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto warned Thursday during an Army Radio interview.

“This is not the time to let our guard down. Chances are there will be a second outbreak wave. We see a possibility that thousands will need to be on ventilators,” he added.

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