Health Ministry to propose further easing of school virus restrictions

Plan will reduce use of pod system, enabling students to attend more classes in person and easing strains on teaching staff and classroom space

Students take part in a lesson in their makeshift outdoor classroom in the coastal city of Ashkelon, February 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Students take part in a lesson in their makeshift outdoor classroom in the coastal city of Ashkelon, February 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein will present ministers with a plan Thursday for a further easing of coronavirus restrictions on the education system, potentially enabling more students to attend classes in person rather than online.

Edelstein will bring the plan to the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers tasked with laying down policy to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal, a result of consultations between Health Ministry officials and the national parents association, calls for changes in the so-called “pod” system, which limits the number of students who can study as a group.

Pods are to be canceled for 4th grade, as has already been done for grades 1-3, according to Hebrew media reports of the proposal. If infection rates don’t rise, the pods will be scrapped for grades 5 and 6 in ten days.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition, students in grades 7 and 8 will be permitted to move between four different pods, rather than just two as is currently the case, enabling them to attend classes in more subjects.

The pod system would be totally scrapped in schools participating in the “Education Shield” program, which requires students to undergo weekly coronavirus tests.

Though the parents association had pushed for an immediate end to pods for grades 5 and 6, the plan notes that releasing 4th graders from the restriction will free up teaching staff and resources to increase the number of pods for older grades.

When not attending classes in person, students have been learning via video interface. At one point, lockdown measures had shuttered the entire education system with the exception of special education institutes.

Edelstein will also seek to release parents from the requirement to sign a declaration every day that they have checked their children’s temperatures to ensure they do not have fever, and also do away with temperature checks at the entrance to schools.

A mother and daughter arrive at school in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel, Feb. 11, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

However, the national parents association and local authorities both criticized the plan for not going far enough.

The parents association, while welcoming the changes, said it would prefer that most students be permitted to return to in-person studies.

The Federation of Local Authorities in Israel rejected the plan and called for all grades to return to full studies immediately after Independence Day next Thursday, Channel 12 reported.

“Fifty-two days total, that all. That’s what remains for the middle and high school students from this year,” said federation chairman Haim Bibas. “Give them at least this, and certainly in the [low infection] cities [which is] most of the country. Enough with the restrictions.”

An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

Some of the proposals had been expected to be approved at a previous meeting on Wednesday that lifted other national virus restrictions, including the number of people allowed to gather in public.

The plan is expected to be met by opposition from Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who has pushed for a more rapid return of schools to a normal framework.

The developments came as the Health Ministry on Thursday said that just 274 new cases of COVID-19 were detected the day before while the positive rate for virus tests confirming infection was just 0.5%.

As of Thursday, there were 4,771 active virus patients in the country.

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A total of 5,295,082 people have already had at least the first dose of the two-shot virus vaccination and 4,894,124 have also had the second shot, well over half the population of the country.

Since the start of the outbreak last year, 835,385 cases of COVID-19 were detected in Israel and 6,270 people have died of the disease, the ministry figure showed.

The virus reproduction number, indicating how many people each virus carrier infects, was given as 0.76, which represents the situation ten days earlier due to the way the figure is calculated.

Values below one show the virus spread is shrinking, while above one shows that it is increasing. The R number, which in March had dropped to just 0.53, had been rising slowly in recent days but the value given Thursday was slightly lower than the 0.79 of the day before.

A Wednesday report from an advisory body to the government about the virus noted that the rise in the R number was likely due to an increase in the number of daily virus tests carried out and an increase in the number of cases after the recent Passover festival when families and friends gathered for traditional holiday events.

On Wednesday night ministers raised the number of people allowed to gather outdoors from 50 to 100. The current limit of 20 people indoors remains in place.

Cultural venues are allowed to host up to 750 people under the Green Pass program, up from the current limit of 500. And large open-air stadiums can increase attendance from 5,000 to 10,000. Indoor arenas can host up to 4,000 seated people.

The Green Pass is given to those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus, granting them entry to public venues not open to others.

The ministers also eased restrictions in place for Memorial Day next week, allowing families of the fallen who do not have the Green Pass to attend ceremonies. The new limits will be in place until April 22.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed