Health Ministry chief orders schools to allow vaccinations on premises

Sidelining education minister, Nachman Ash instructs principals to permit medical teams on-site during school hours to inoculate students whose parents give approval

Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 14, 2021.(Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)
Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 14, 2021.(Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash signed a directive Wednesday ordering schools across the country to allow vaccinations to take place on their premises during school days, seemingly ending a protracted fight with the education minister over the matter.

The directive instructs heads of institutions to allow Health Ministry teams to enter during school hours and administer vaccines to willing staff and to students over the age of 12 who have written permission from their parents to get inoculated.

As a result of the directive, Haredi students, who have already begun their school year, will start getting vaccines on Thursday.

The coronavirus cabinet is expected to convene on Sunday to make decisions on the opening of the school year. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett refused to commit to opening schools nationwide on September 1 as scheduled, with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise.

“We will make that decision in the coming week, according to the situation with the pandemic,” Bennett told a reporter from Channel 13 news when asked about the slated start of schools.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has clashed with other government officials over the administration of the shots in schools. She is insisting that immunizations not be given during school hours, a position that would hobble an effective vaccination program in the education system. Israel has regularly performed other vaccine drives within schools.

The minister has courted controversy by previously calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.”

On Tuesday the Haaretz daily reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was preparing a legal position that would back the health minister’s right to bypass the education minister on the matter.

Israeli students return to school in Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Justice Ministry officials are of the opinion that Shasha-Bitan is not authorized to prevent students from getting the shots during school hours if their parents agree, the report said.

Despite their divide on the vaccinations, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Shasha-Biton did agree Monday on a plan under which students attending schools in so-called “red cities” — those with the worst virus outbreaks on the Health Ministry’s color-coded scale — will switch to remote learning if fewer than 70 percent of students in a class have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID, or passed a positive serological test for antibodies. Mandelblit also supports the plan, which would apply to grades 8 and up.

However, the Justice Ministry on Monday told the government that another key element of its plan to enable reopening schools on September 1 cannot be implemented, Haaretz reported.

The framework for operating schools during the pandemic envisions only granting entry to vaccinated or recovered students or those showing a negative virus test. However, the Justice Ministry officials found there are legal difficulties in denying children an education just because their parents refuse to let them be vaccinated or take a virus test.

The report noted that during a 2019 measles outbreak Mandelblit approved measures that included denying entry to schools to pupils who were not vaccinated, and providing schools with information on students who were not immunized. As a result, hundreds of students were kept out of schools, according to the report.

The latest development followed reports of a dust-up in the cabinet over Shasha-Biton’s refusal to allow vaccination of high schoolers during school hours.

According to Hebrew media reports, during a cabinet meeting over Zoom, Bennett appeared to grow frustrated at Shasha-Biton’s refusal to use school hours to administer the COVID vaccine, despite the fact that most other vaccination drives are conducted through schools during class hours.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (R) (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“You’re not from the UN,” he reportedly said on the Zoom call, using a Hebrew expression that means one shouldn’t be neutral on the subject being discussed. According to some accounts, he pounded his desk as he spoke. “Serological tests are nice, but they’re not what’s going to save us. What will save us is only vaccinations, and I demand that you get under the stretcher” – another Hebrew expression that means to do one’s part for the team.

“It’s unthinkable that you don’t understand that it’s your responsibility just as much as the Health Ministry’s,” Bennett was said to have chided Shasha-Biton and other education officials on the call.

Health Minister Horowitz reportedly joined Bennett in criticizing the education minister. “‘Creative solutions’ is all well and good, but only vaccinations will ensure the school year opens,” he said.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz receives his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, August 13, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

According to the reports, Shasha-Biton agreed that schools could use their resources to encourage students to vaccinate, but said she feared that allowing vaccination during school hours would put the schools in the middle of a decision she characterized as divisive.

In a statement to the media, Bennett’s office denied that the tone was angry, but did not deny the substance of the reported debate. “Not every exchange that happens in [cabinet] discussions is a confrontation,” Bennett’s statement said. “The prime minister and the education minister are working in cooperation to open the school year safely, while protecting the health of Israel’s children.”

Some 7,800 Israelis tested positive for COVID Tuesday. There are currently 961 Israelis hospitalized with COVID, 578 in serious condition, and 104 on ventilators.

Currently, 27.9 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, while among those aged 16-19, 68.6% have received both vaccine doses, according to Health Ministry figures.

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