Ministers on Friday voted that students in grades 1-3 and 11-12 will return to school on Sunday, with kindergartens only expected to reopen on May 10 after an assessment of the situation.
The government announced that in ultra-Orthodox schools, students in grades 7-12 will head back to the classroom on Sunday instead of the younger grades, as well as “minor seminaries,” without defining the parameters.
The remainder of students are expected to go back to school by June 1, and are to continue with remote learning in the meantime.
Special education classes will be fully resumed and provisions will additionally be decided in the future for children deemed to be at-risk, the Prime Minister’s Office said, adding that school will not be compulsory, with the exception of matriculation exams.
However, within minutes of the decision, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced that schools in the city will remain closed.
“Our schools and kindergartens are clean and the teams are ready, but we will not go by rules set by people who do not act responsibly,” said Huldai in a statement.
Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen said the government’s decision was “disconnected from reality on the ground” and that his municipality will open schools only when all problems have been solved.
The National Security Council had recommended that the reopening of schools be delayed, saying that educational institutions had not made the preparations necessary to be able to reopen during the pandemic.
The decision to delay the opening of kindergartens came after Health Ministry officials pushed to postpone the move, amid fears that young children will be unable to maintain necessary social distancing or hygiene standards, and keeping groups of 15 kids separate from each other, as ordered, will be difficult.
How infectious are kids?
The preliminary conclusions of a study by the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research were presented Thursday to the Health Ministry. The study of 563 families (2,823 people) in Bnei Brak, which saw a large outbreak last month, found that children in households where one family member had the coronavirus were 20-50 percent less susceptible than adults to contract it, and recommended a careful and gradual reopening of schools.
It also said children were apparently 20%-75% less likely than adults to infect others, but stressed the results were preliminary and require further research.
Israeli medical professionals are also closely following international research into children and the coronavirus. For example, the New South Wales Health Center for Immunization Research conducted a study on children, and concluded they are unlikely to transmit COVID-19 between each other or to adults. In New South Wales, Australia, a decision to reopen schools was said to have been influenced by that theory.
A study published this month in the US journal Clinical Infectious Diseases ascertained that a child in France, who only displayed mild symptoms, came into contact with 172 people while sick. All of those were placed in quarantine as a precaution, but none of them contracted COVID-19, not even the child’s two siblings.
For now, Israeli doctors tend to regard children as capable of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus, as does the Health Ministry.
The country’s first patient under 19 to suffer serious complications from the virus, an 11-year-old girl, is currently hospitalized at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
The move to reopen schools came as Israel took its biggest steps toward reopening the economy this week, allowing many non-essential businesses to operate for the first time in a month, as new virus cases and the numbers of seriously ill have steadily declined.
In Israel, where most parents both work full-time, reopening the economy necessitates a solution for younger children who cannot be left unsupervised. The Bank of Israel said last week 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.
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 teachers have continued to teach via teleconferencing, though the program has been met with reports of only middling success.
Israel has seen the number of daily cases decline in the past week. As of Friday morning, there have been 223 deaths and 16,004 total confirmed carriers of the virus, most of whom have recovered.
Nathan Jeffay and agencies contributed to this report.