Health minister: ‘Wretched’ decision to keep schools open will extend lockdown

Knesset committee overturned cabinet decision to mandate remote learning for all children aside from students in grades 1-4, 11-12

Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)
Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday condemned Knesset lawmakers for voting to allow all schools to remain open during the third national lockdown, saying the decision would only prolong the closure.

Under the original terms for the lockdown proposed by the government, preschools, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12 were to have a full day of classes as usual, but grades 5-10 were to stay at home and use distance learning instead. However, the Knesset Education Committee convened on Sunday and voted to overturn the regulations, thereby keeping all students in the classroom.

Edelstein said the “wretched decision to allow studies in all grades is something that will certainly prolong the lockdown,” which began at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Although declared for two weeks with an option to extend, health officials have already warned the lockdown will likely go on for a month. Daily virus cases in Israel have been climbing upward in recent weeks, surpassing 3,000 on most days over the past week.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

Schools were shuttered entirely during the previous two lockdowns in April and September, which succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back. The school system was considered one of the main factors in the resurgence in infections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on Sunday evening accused Blue and White lawmakers of “endangering the lives of Israeli citizens” and seeking to “disrupt the lockdown for political reasons to prolong the closure during the election” by supporting the school openings.

Israel goes to elections on March 23, for the fourth time in two years.

The move to keep all schools open “will bring more deaths and prolong the time when businesses are closed,” a statement from the party said. “Blue and White must stop the political games and join Prime Minister Netanyahu in an effort for a fast and well-enforced lockdown together with a huge vaccination campaign that will make Israel one of the first countries in the world to emerge from the coronavirus and open the economy.”

Blue and White swiftly hit back, saying: “In all countries of the world, the education system also operates in a lockdown,” without providing examples to back up that claim.

“Netanyahu, who has avoided dealing with hotspots and raising fines for narrow political reasons, continues to use the coronavirus for his political needs. We will not accept moral sermons from those who bring hundreds of thousands of families to poverty and have not transferred a budget just to escape the law and harm the justice system,” the party charged, referring to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a state budget, which caused the government to dissolve last week.

The Education Ministry has been pushing back against the Health Ministry demands to close the education system and the subject was reportedly one of the most hotly debated topics on the agenda as the cabinet met to decide on lockdown measures.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Fines for violators stand at NIS 500 ($155).

A senior health official said on Sunday that the length of the lockdown could depend on how much of the education system remained open.

“I assume that the lockdown will take between three and four weeks, but if the full education system returns to activity, it will take longer,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio.

A senior Health Ministry official told Channel 13 news that the government regulations on schools would be resubmitted within 24 hours.

Israeli students wearing face masks return to high school in Tel Aviv on December 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

During the lockdown, security forces will set up hundreds of checkpoints on highways around the country. Hebrew media reports indicated that the police presence on the roads would be sporadic during the day and bolstered during the nighttime hours.

The rules will be enforced by some 6,000 cops nationwide.

“Lockdowns save lives,” said coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Sunday, shortly before the lockdown began.

“We are in a race between the rising morbidity and the vaccines,” added Ash. “The vaccine campaign is going exceptionally well. We have managed to vaccinate nearly 300,000 people, and at the same time, the vaccines are streaming into Israel according to plan and we will receive more during the coming weeks.”

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits the Jerusalem Municipality, November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination drive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday he sought to reach a vaccination rate of around 150,000 people a day within a week, and to have inoculated over 2 million Israelis by the end of January.

The lockdown was to be imposed as Health Ministry data released on Sunday morning showed 2,630 cases of coronavirus diagnosed a day earlier. There were 63,434 tests carried out on Saturday, with 4.1% of them returning a positive result. Testing numbers and new cases often fall off on weekends.

There were 35,560 active cases in Israel, with 604 patients in serious condition including 145 on ventilators. There were 172 patients in moderate condition and the remainder were defined as mild or suffering no symptoms.

There have been 400,099 people diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

The death toll stood at 3,222.

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