Coronavirus crisis

Israeli teachers, Finance Ministry negotiating to reinstitute remote learning

When online teaching officially ended on March 18, many parents protested the loss of an ‘anchor’ for children in a period of anxiety and uncertainty

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Israeli preschool students engage in remote learning, March 16, 2020. (Education Ministry)
Israeli preschool students engage in remote learning, March 16, 2020. (Education Ministry)

The Finance Ministry and Teachers Union are currently in negotiations to reinstate remote learning after it was aborted on March 18 due to a labor dispute, The Times of Israel has learned, with parents clamoring for a return to some normalcy for their children.

Israel’s 2.2 million elementary, middle and secondary school students have been homebound since March 13, following a government decision to shut down schools in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

For four days, teachers throughout the country communicated with and taught students via the internet and through videoconferences, but last Wednesday, their union announced that teachers would stop doing so due to a dispute with the Finance Ministry over whether they should be paid in full for their remote working days.

“We told the Finance Ministry we are happy to teach remotely as long as we are paid in full for those days,” a spokeswoman for the Israel Teacher’s Union said in a statement to The Times of Israel.

Finance Ministry officials had claimed many teachers, particularly in preschool, were not really working.

“We reached an agreement last week with high school teachers that they will continue to teach,” said a source close to the Finance Ministry. “We don’t want to hurt students’ chances of completing matriculation exams. But there are, for example, 23,000 preschool teachers in Israel who engage in remote learning by sending a task to their students every few days. That’s not full-time work.”

Negotiations are now underway to reinstate the remote learning, following an outcry from parents dismayed by the cancellation and with no end in sight to school closures.

A man walks past a closed Castro store in the empty Mamila Mall in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A petition calling for the continuation of remote learning has circulated online, with over 9,000 signatures.

“In a period when uncertainty and anxiety are the name of the game … parents and children had an anchor. Remote learning allowed for a continued connection between a child and their teachers and classmates and created an impression that daily life was continuing as much as possible in this difficult period,” the petition said.

Yoav Krakovsky, a popular television journalist, made a clip showing his daughters explaining what they liked about remote learning.

“Why did they decide to give up on remote learning?” he lamented. “It’s such a pity, just when we need it.”

“The remote learning gave kids motivation to get up in the morning and not to waste away,” wrote one commenter, who described herself as “both a parent and a teacher.”

Zev Goldblatt, chairman of the Parents Forum, a national body that advocates for parents vis-a-vis the education system, said in a phone interview that “90 percent of parents have been complaining since the remote learning ended.”

But the financial dispute with teachers was not the only problem hampering distance learning, Goldblatt said.

According to Goldblatt, the Education Ministry has spent hundreds of millions of shekels in recent years on a supposedly state-of-the-art interactive remote learning platform called Ofek, which has suffered from repeated technical glitches.

The most recent of these occurred last Sunday, when many students tried to access it at once and it crashed.

“Education Minister Rafi Peretz said they’re trying to fix the bugs. It collapses time after time,” he said.

A page from the Ministry of Education’s Ofek website, which crashed on March 15, 2020 due to excessive demand (Screenshot)

As a result, teachers were forced to resort to lower-tech options, said Goldblatt, like sending assignments via WhatsApp and email, as well as videoconferencing via Zoom.

“Ofek wasn’t working. The situation wasn’t ideal. But the Teachers Union decided to stop other things that were going well like the videoconferencing on Zoom.”

Goldblatt said the Finance Ministry had asked the Teachers Union to have its members make up for the days of remote learning, by working an extra nine days in the summer. The Finance Ministry confirmed this.

“That’s why the teachers decided to strike,” he said. “It was recently reported that 500,000 people in Israel filed for unemployment since the beginning of the month. Soon there will be a million, but the teachers decided to strike over nine extra days,” he lamented.

“We understand that parents don’t feel good about this,” said a spokeswoman for the Teachers Union. “We don’t feel good about it either. We didn’t want to stop the remote learning. That was the Finance Ministry’s decision. Once they took this decision, we made it clear once again that educators will work only if they receive a salary.”

Strikebreaking teachers

Yet teachers all over the country are continuing to communicate with students and assign them tasks, albeit with less intensity than before.

“There are a lot of schools in Tel Aviv whose teachers are still working, despite the strike,” an education worker told The Times of Israel. The worker asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue of strikebreaking.

Illustrative: Israeli youth during a remote learning session at their home in Moshav Yashresh, on March 18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“In moshavim and kibbutzim in the north, teachers have stopped completely,” the worker said.

Karin, a mother of a second-grader and a kindergartner in north Tel Aviv, said that her children’s school continues to check in with students and send them assignments, but these arrive as a single email a day from the school, as opposed to from individual teachers.

“Previously there were lots of assignments every day. Teachers sent messages on WhatsApp. If a child wrote to them they answered right away. Now there’s a daily email from the school. They send a YouTube video for sports class and they send a math and Hebrew assignment.”

“I find it helpful,” she said.

In nearby Givatayim, “almost all elementary school teachers are keeping in touch with their students,” said Irit Aronson, who is in charge of education for the municipality.

“But they are doing this just for the children’s emotional needs so they don’t get in trouble with the Teachers Union,” she added.

Aronson said that the mayor of Givatayim, Ran Kunik, did not want kids to go crazy at home so as soon as the city learned about the strike, it paid for a private education company called Snunit to conduct remote learning for all the kids in the city.

Givatayim Mayor Ran Kunik (YouTube screenshot)

“Within 24 hours the system was up and running. Snunit has its own teachers, it was founded by people from the Hebrew University. It teaches the core curriculum along with courses like chess, computer programming and mathematical thinking,” said Aronson.

In Israel’s Arabic-speaking schools, most teachers decided to continue with the remote learning as well, said Diana Daaboul, a college lecturer and pedagogical counselor.

“I’m active in a lot of forums of teachers and academics and from what I can see most teachers in the Arab society told students they will continue. Also, academics, psychologists, educators and institutions are all doing whatever they can, on a volunteer basis, to provide tools, material, and knowledge to help parents and teachers.”

Not for everyone

Daaboul said that remote learning does not work for all students, especially those with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder, or who lack computers or internet connections at home.

Diana Daaboul, lecturer and pedagogical counselor (Facebook)

“There are gaps among households. There are families that don’t have internet or computers at home and there are parents who don’t have the knowledge to help their kids. Socioeconomic gaps play a big part in this.”

MK Yousef Jabareen from the Joint List party sent a letter to the education minister on March 19 saying that one-third of Arab students don’t have access to the internet. He also said that the Education Ministry’s online videos in Arabic are less comprehensive and of poorer quality than its offerings in Hebrew.

“He still hasn’t received an answer and the problem hasn’t been solved,” Daaboul said.

She said she also noticed that there are students who do things like take screenshots of their teachers online and distribute the photos with mocking comments.

“They’re not used to this kind of learning, they don’t understand the ethics of remote learning. It’s a big challenge.”

‘What did she send today?’

Ariel Augenbraun Blacher, who teaches 8th and 11th grade English in Hashmonaim and Rehovot, decided to continue teaching her students despite the strike. She said her own kids’ 7th and 9th grade teachers are still assigning work and checking in, “even though they aren’t supposed to.”

Middle and high-school teacher Ariel Augenbaum Blacher (Facebook)

“Teachers who are creative love the online learning. Those who don’t love it assign worksheets or PowerPoints. But the idea is to make it fun for the student. I want them to think, ‘What did she send me today?’”

For instance, a colleague mentioned that museums were offering free virtual tours.

“I decided to assign students a virtual tour of the Statue of Liberty. Very few Israelis know about the history of immigrants to the United States. They watched it in English and had to answer questions in Google forms and translate a quote outside Ellis Island.”

Parents of preschool and elementary school children often find that distance learning nevertheless requires a lot of investment from parents as well.

Karin, the mother from north Tel Aviv whose school still sends one email a day, has noticed that she is spending a lot of time being a teacher to her kids, time that she used to spend at work before she and most Israeli workers were confined to their homes.

“I spend about four hours a day teaching my kids. We eat breakfast, I give them assignments, and make up math puzzles. After lunch I work, and they can play. It’s exciting for them to get so much attention from their parents. They really like it and so do I. I’m enjoying the quality time.”

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