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Israel hands every child a DIY virus test, in bold bid for safe school restart

Plan aims to stop kids who are infected but don’t realize it from coming in, thus reducing COVID spread, says expert; trust between parents, schools and authorities seen as key

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Children take samples as part of a coronavirus test at Sheba Medical Center for students to return to school at the beginning of the new academic year. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Children take samples as part of a coronavirus test at Sheba Medical Center for students to return to school at the beginning of the new academic year. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In one of the world’s largest deployments of home COVID tests, Israel is asking families to screen all children under the age of 12 before schools and kindergartens reopen on Wednesday following summer vacation.

Over-12s who are unvaccinated are also being given tests, and some schools are also distributing the test kits to vaccinated pupils, as the Delta variant has broken through immunity on numerous occasions.

The initiative is an ambitious attempt to identify and isolate kids who are infected but don’t realize it before they head to classrooms and infect other children as well as staff. Infection from the Delta strain commonly goes unnoticed among youth, and the country is still deep in the throes of a wave of the highly infectious variant. More than 10,900 new cases of COVID were confirmed in Israel on Monday, marking a record one-day high since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Parents have picked up test kits from school and have been asked to swab their kids’ nostrils by Tuesday and check results on a module that looks similar to a home pregnancy test.

“This program has great potential to reduce the extent of infection arriving in classrooms,” Prof. Miri Yemini, an expert in health and the education system, told The Times of Israel. “The idea is to identify undercover or asymptomatic COVID by getting all children of all ages tested, and getting parents to sign a document saying that the result was negative.”

Children who are deemed COVID-free by the test are to pack their schoolbags and show up with their declaration, while those who test positive are expected to enter quarantine immediately.

A child poses with her COVID-19 home kit test that she received from her school, ahead of the opening of the new school year, in Jerusalem, August 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Children with positive test results are supposed to register for a lab-processed PCR test to confirm the diagnosis. PCR tests are deemed more accurate, and in some very rare cases a home test kit may throw out a false positive.

The testing plan is intended to mitigate an expected inevitable spike in infections from schools reopening. Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka told The Times of Israel earlier this month: “I can promise you that we will have more cases when school opens. When people gather again and again, this is how the virus passes from one to another.”

Some ministers argued for delaying the start of the schools year but Zarka, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior decision makers were determined to reopen on time and implement measures to manage the foreseen upturn in cases.

Director of Ziv Medical Center Salman Zarka attends a ceremony at the hospital in the northern city of Safed, on February 25, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The home test operation, one such measure, hinges on communal solidarity rather than legal requirements. Parents are not required by law to perform the home tests, but are expected to overwhelmingly comply out of a sense of responsibility.

“The concept relies on social obligation and solidarity, not law, and in a sense the success of the new year will be determined based on whether parents comply and perform home tests,” said Yemini. “The hope is those who are positive won’t go back to school, and this will allow reduction in infection and quarantining.”

Distribution of home kit test ahead of the opening of the new school year, in Tel Aviv, August 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

If the current screening goes smoothly, it is likely there will be a further round of tests after some or all of the Jewish holidays this months, though no plans for this have been announced.

Steps are also being taken to reduce the spreading of infection by teachers. They are now required to have Green Passes, which means they must be vaccinated or have recovered from the virus. They also have the option of providing a negative result from a test performed in the last 72 hours, at their expense.

Teachers unions are furious about the plan, and the Teachers Association says it will take legal action against the government decision if it is not enforced against all public sector employees evenly. The government believes that the plan is justified in order to control infections.

Day-to-day school life will include mask-wearing indoors and a degree of social distancing. Parents will only be allowed on school premises if they show a Green Pass, and teacher-parent meetings are expected to take place online rather than in person.

Children ages 12 and up will be offered vaccines in school, if they are not already inoculated, as long as they have the permission of one parent. In high-infection cities and towns, classes for grades 8 to 12 will be moved online if more than 30% of students are completely unvaccinated, though as soon as seven in 10 kids has at least one shot, they can return to classrooms.

One of the biggest stresses of parents is quarantine — the constantly looming possibility that any unvaccinated child will be subjected to up to a week of isolation because of contact with an infected person.

The government gave parents hope that they may be able to avoid this fate by launching a nationwide program to administer serological tests to all children. The simple blood test reveals if people have unknowingly recovered from COVID by assessing their antibody levels. If they are found to have antibodies, they will not need to quarantine upon exposure to an infected person.

IDF officers and soldiers from the Home Front Command conduct serological testing for antibodies in children aged 3 to 12 in Katzrin, in the Golan Heights, August 22, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“This program was stopped after fewer children than was expected were shown to be positive,” said Yemini. “In ultra-Orthodox cities positives stood at about 25%, but among the general population there were 5-7% positives, so the government decided to continue the program only where there have been high levels of reported infection, mostly in ultra-Orthodox and Arab towns.”

Yemini believes that trust between parents, schools and authorities is one of the key factors that will determine the success of the return to school. “This is really important, as if people feel connected to the national effort, the country can confront the virus much better,” she said.

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