Health Ministry school opening plan said similar to widely panned 1st reopening

Education officials reportedly unhappy with plans almost identical to those laid down at beginning of school year that were blamed for contributing to spike in national cases

Parents accompany their children to kindergarten in Tel Aviv as they return after a national lockdown was eased, October 18, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Parents accompany their children to kindergarten in Tel Aviv as they return after a national lockdown was eased, October 18, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has sent the Education Ministry its guidelines for reopening schools after the country’s second national lockdown, sparking concern that the new plan is almost identical to the widely panned first reopening, Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

The suggested plan is similar to that of a scheme tried after the country exited a previous lockdown — and as the number of virus cases nationwide subsequently spiked, the education system was blamed as being a major contributor to the spread.

Israel has begun easing a monthlong closure that has managed to curb runaway infection rates while shuttering much of the economy and paralyzing many aspects of life for much of the population. Preschools and daycare centers were reopened on Sunday, with the Health Ministry reportedly finalizing its requirements for restarting the rest of the school system.

The plan comes amid fear that a reopening the education system could undo all the gains achieved in the second lockdown. This has been exacerbated by ultra-Orthodox schools in red, high-infection areas reopening illegally, in defiance of government restrictions.

According to Channel 12,  the Health Ministry plan for grade schools is based around students learning in so-called capsules, groups of children that remain together throughout the day and are prevented from mingling with other pupils.

Under the terms suggested by the Health Ministry, grades 1 and 2 would not be limited to capsules, and there can be up to two members of staff with the children in the classroom. Students would not be required to wear masks and meals would be eaten outside in fixed groups, with breaks staggered to keep classes separated and with the children remaining within the same fixed groups.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

Aftercare services would be able to have up to three groups together.

Grades 3 and 4 would study in capsules of up to 18 children, also with up to two staff per classroom. Masks would need to be worn at all times and breaks would be staggered between classes with students remaining in fixed groups.

The Health Ministry was aiming to allow grade schools to resume in two weeks, on condition that number of new virus cases diagnosed daily falls below 1,000, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Health Ministry figures released Sunday showed there were just 398 cases diagnosed the day before, compared with over 8,000 a day just three weeks ago. However, numbers tend to be lower over the weekend as testing rates also go down.

For grades 5-12, considered the most infectious, students would study in capsules of up to 18, with only one teacher present in the classroom. Masks would need to be worn at all times, breaks would be staggered and students would need to remain in fixed groups. No timeframe has been set for these grades to return and the report said it could still be a long way off.

Nevertheless, the details of the plan sparked criticism, particularly in the Education Ministry.  Ministry sources complained to Channel 12 that on the one hand the school system was blamed for the second wave that prompted the ongoing national lockdown and on the other hand the Health Ministry is planning to open schools under the same conditions that were considered to have failed in the past.

Sources told the station the ministry was able to enforce stricter conditions in classrooms if health officials demanded.

Elementary school students on September 1, 2020, their first day back at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli school. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The criticism likely represented the continuation of a struggle between the health and education ministries. In the past, the Education Ministry has pushed for a quicker resumption of studies.

As the virus outbreak and closures disrupted regular classroom studies the education system switched to online learning with students meeting for video conference lessons. However, the need to watch over younger children forced many parents to skip work and stay at home.

Officials have expressed fear that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and businesses would lead to a repeat of the chaotic emergence from Israel’s first lockdown in May, widely blamed for paving the way for the spike in new COVID-19 cases in August and September.

There was already pushback against the opening of preschool institutes, with the National Teachers Union declaring a labor dispute Sunday over the rushed reopening and demands that personal protective gear be provided for teaching staff.

The government only voted to allow the preschool reopening on Thursday, giving staff little time to prepare for the arrival of students on Sunday morning.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, 303,109 Israelis have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 2,209 have died.

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