The National Security Council and the education and health ministries were holding deliberations Thursday on whether to order the closure of elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite Education Minister Rafi Peretz saying earlier in the day that the country’s schools would remain open despite increasingly tight restrictions from health officials, multiple Hebrew media reports said that schools would be ordered closed until at least after the Passover vacation next month. They said an announcement would be made on Thursday evening.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry banned gatherings of more than 100 people in enclosed spaces, prompting the secretary-general of the Israel Teachers’ Union, Yaffa Ben-David, to demand that all schools be closed. Several school students in Israel have already been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I call on the prime minister to show national responsibility for public health, including toward the country’s students, educators and their families, in order to stop the spread of the virus and the next victims,” she wrote in a message to education workers.
Directing her remarks at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she appealed for him to close all educational institutions, kindergartens and schools.
Teachers have raised concerns over their exposure to hundreds of students every day.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, meanwhile, said Thursday that it would open the second semester of the year a week late and that all studies for its more than 20,000 students would be conducted remotely through video streaming, starting March 22.
In a statement, the university said the postponement in opening the semester, which had been scheduled to start next week, was in order to implement distance learning system at its two campuses in Givat Ram and Mount Scopus.
“The university is continuing its research activities and campuses will be open, including libraries and administrative units,” the statement said.
Exams for the first semester, which are scheduled for next week will take place as planned, albeit with no more than 100 students in each exam hall.
The university had already earlier begun exploring the option of using remote learning as a precaution against further restrictions on public gatherings, and in order to enable dozens of faculty and students who are in self-quarantine after returning from trips abroad to continue participating in studies. Until Thursday’s announcement, the university had planned to open the semester on time.
Earlier, Education Minister Peretz held a situations meeting at the ministry in Jerusalem to review the impact of the virus on the school system.
“In accordance with a decision by the Health Ministry and the National Security Council, there is no need to cancel studies under the current situation,” Peretz said in a statement after the meeting. “We are not taking unnecessary risks and on the other hand we are carefully preserving routine with clear instructions [on how to act].”
Peretz also addressed the issue of “fake news” that could include false information on school shutdowns.
“Don’t believe all kinds of fake notifications that are going around on social media — an official decision, if there is one, while only come from the ministry spokesperson’s office,” he said.
Peretz ordered that schools planning large events break up the students into smaller groups, apparently to adhere to the Health Ministry order on limiting the number of people gathered together in an enclosed space.
“Anyone who feels ill, even a little bit, shouldn’t go to school,” Peretz said. “Teachers and pupils alike — don’t take chances. In the end, it is these small measures that will help to reduce the spread.”
The minister instructed education officials to take a number of measures including putting a focus on encouraging personal hygiene among staff and students, ensuring bathrooms are kept clean, and looking into the possibility of providing all schools with hand gel sanitizers.
In addition, Peretz said students should be encouraged to gather only in small groups during recesses and that school trips should be limited to no more than 100 participants.
On Wednesday Netanyahu announced the 100-person limit on gatherings as part of increasingly strict measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in the country. The ban includes synagogue prayer and weddings, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov elaborated.
The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
There have so far been 104 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, many of them contracted by travelers who recently returned from abroad.
Worldwide, there have been over 118,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 4,300 deaths.
Prior to the new restrictions, public gatherings in Israel had been limited to 2,000 people, including for religious events.
To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals will be allowed into the country until Thursday at 8 p.m., but after that they will be barred entry unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.
The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.
Ireland on Thursday announced the closure of all schools and colleges, and recommended the cancellation of mass gatherings as part of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. In the US, dozens of colleges have suspended classes and told students to stay away from campuses, with some offering online learning instead.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.