Coronavirus cabinet to meet again on reopening more malls

Israel’s school system now open for all students as another lockdown looms

7th-10th graders back in class for 1st time since mid-September; schools in virus hotspots remain closed; government said mulling text message system for quarantine tracking

Students return to school in Tel aviv on December 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Students return to school in Tel aviv on December 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Hundreds of thousands of students in grades 7-10 were returning to class on Sunday for the first time in over two months, as health officials warned of a new lockdown in the near future as virus cases climb steadily upward.

Cities and towns with high infection rates — flagged as “red” or “orange” under the government’s so-called traffic light system — will keep schools closed, with middle and high school students continuing to learn remotely. In areas with lower rates of COVID infection, classes for 7-10 grades can resume at least twice a week, in groups of no more than 20.

Grades 7-10 were the last students remaining at home since mid-September’s nationwide lockdown was introduced. Starting late October, the government has gradually reopened the school system, permitting first younger students, and then high schoolers, to return to class several days a week.

For all students, classes are held under tight restrictions, with children and teenagers required to wear masks and split into smaller groups. While younger students have five days of in-person school each week, those above fifth grade are only in school part-time, 2-3 times a week, with the rest of their learning held online.

Students at Orot Etzion School, in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, in the West Bank on November 1, 2020 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The reopening of schools in May, and again on September 1, was blamed for a serious uptick in coronavirus cases around the country.

There were 986 new virus cases diagnosed on Saturday, the Health Ministry said in a statement on Sunday morning. There were 25,308 tests carried out with a 3.9% positivity rate. Testing levels tend to drop over the weekend.

The number of active cases stood at 13,189, of which 311 were in serious condition. The total number of diagnosed cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 344,066.

Eight overnight deaths took the death toll to 2,909.

With the so-called coronavirus cabinet set to meet Sunday, a fight was expected over shopping malls. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and the Health Ministry are opposed to the continued opening after a pilot program saw some 15 centers open in recent days. Health officials believe crowding at malls can contribute to rising infections.

Meanwhile the economy and finance ministries believe the pilot was a success and want to open more malls, according to reports. They argue that opening further locations will mitigate issues of crowding that plagued the pilot.

People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The government will not impose a national coronavirus lockdown during the Hanukkah holiday, which takes place December 10-18, but will urge the public to celebrate only in nuclear families and to maintain health precautions, TV networks reported Saturday night.

“I don’t think that leading up to Hanukkah it is right to open more malls. We won’t bring a recommendation to the coronavirus cabinet for a full lockdown during the Hanukkah holiday,” Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday.

Edelstein echoed those remarks to Channel 12, saying the ministry will focus on recommendations for the public to avoid gatherings, rather than a national closure.

Meanwhile, according to Channel 12, the Health Ministry is calling for the government to announce clear criteria for a potential third lockdown, while suggesting this could actually encourage the public to maintain virus guidelines in order to avoid such an eventuality.

The report said the ministry is seeking the main criterion for such a lockdown to be a viral basic reproduction number of 1.4. The basic reproduction number is the average number of people each virus carrier infects. It currently stands at 1.19 nationwide, having nearly doubled in just over a month.

According to Channel 12, there is concern that some of the latest infections are being driven by arrivals from abroad who are failing to properly quarantine as required by law, with only a quarter of those returning following the quarantine requirements.

It said the government is currently looking at introducing a new quarantine tracking system that will automatically send text messages to those ordered to quarantine twice a day, at random times. The individuals will need to confirm they are at the quarantine location, with the system able to confirm whether the text message was sent from where the person was instructed to stay.

View of the Departure hall in Terminal 1 at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 1, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, the matter is currently under debate, with Justice Ministry officials voicing privacy concerns, the report said.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 said the Health Ministry is seeking to force all Israeli arrivals from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Bulgaria to quarantine at government-run hotels rather than at home — to prevent the breaking of quarantine.

Recent days have seen daily case numbers and test positivity rates slowly but steadily rise, with numerous health officials warning that Israel appears to be heading into a third wave of the pandemic.

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