The Education Ministry is reportedly set to reopen kindergartens and elementary schools during the first week of May as Israel prepares to gradually ease its pandemic restrictions.
The government has faced mounting public frustration in recent days over the continued lockdown, although health officials remain steadfastly opposed to opening schools due to the risk of infections among children.
Thus far, only special education programs have restarted operations, albeit in a limited capacity, while daycares and all other schooling have remained on the back burner.
School administrative staff were ordered back to work on Thursday. A statement from the Education Ministry said administrative employees would be returning to schools subject to Health Ministry guidelines.
Kindergarten and elementary schools will open on May 3, Channel 13 reported on Thursday. The report did not address daycare centers.
Students in kindergarten classes will be divided into groups of 15, with each group attending school for half of each week to limit the spread of the virus.
Younger students at elementary schools, which have more classrooms and space, will attend class for the full week. Students in grades four, five and six, and middle school and high school pupils, will continue remote learning.
On Friday, administrators and staffers at educational institutions will begin organizing the classes into groups and deciding how to best deploy educators and resources.
Groups of special education students, which are currently limited to three children each, will be expanded to seven or eight students each after Independence Day on April 29, the report said.
The cabinet was scheduled to discuss a further easing of restrictions on Thursday night, but the meeting was postponed until 8 a.m. Friday.
The past few days have seen growing expressions of public frustration and anger over the continued lockdowns and workplace closures that are, for some, financially ruinous. Meanwhile many out-of-work individuals have questioned this week’s decision to open some businesses while keeping others closed, claiming they were made without detailed or clear reasoning.
The Bank of Israel said Thursday that the shutdown of the education system was costing the economy around NIS 2.6 billion ($737 million) per week as many households had to leave one parent at home to tend to children.
School administrative staff were ordered back to work on Thursday in an apparent sign that Israel would soon gradually ease its pandemic restrictions and allow schools to reopen.
“One step at a time, the education system is returning to routine,” said Education Minister Rafi Peretz. “We are doing everything we can to get the education system running again and the return of administrative teams to schools is another step in that direction.”
“We are ready to gradually return to routine, albeit in small groups and in a rotational capacity,” Peretz added. “If businesses and shopping centers are opening, there is no reason why the education system should not reopen as well, even if it must be in a different format.”
Health officials have cautioned against reopening schools at this stage, stressing concerns that children may infect each other widely and that while they themselves may be able to weather the virus, their parents and grandparents will have a harder time doing so.
“The reinstatement of the education system will come at the cost of human lives,” Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto warned Thursday during an Army Radio interview.
“This is not the time to let our guard down. Chances are there will be a second outbreak wave. We see a possibility that thousands will need to be on ventilators,” he added.
Those ordered by the Education Ministry on Thursday to return in the first wave are principals, deputy principals, secretaries, bookkeepers and caretakers.
In addition to secretarial work, budget management, account managing, payments and registrations, administrative staffs will be tasked with drawing up strategies to allow the gradual return of students while also fine-tuning the education system’s online learning, which will continue to require use for the near future.
The administrative staff has also been tasked with preparing for classes to run through summer vacation to make up for time missed due to the pandemic, the Education Ministry said.
But as the Education Ministry prepares to reopen schools, the head of the teachers’ union has hinted that administrative staff might have to plan for instructors not to be present.
During a Wednesday Knesset hearing on the education system, Yaffa Ben David accused the Finance Ministry of “taking advantage of the crisis,” of demonizing her union and of “turning parents against teachers.”
Ben David argued that teachers have already worked for 13 days without pay, preparing lesson plans and leading online learning sessions in the past two months of the pandemic.
“Teachers are on the phone talking to parents until the wee hours of the morning. The work day doesn’t end at 2 p.m.,” she said, demanding an improvement to teachers’ work conditions.
According to the latest lockdown guidelines, workplaces in the industry, production and services sectors are allowed to have 30 percent of their employees come to work, or 10 workers at the same time at the same workplace — whichever is higher.
Meanwhile certain types of shops — such as those selling electrical goods, household goods and opticians — are allowed to open under certain restrictions, including taking body temperatures upon entry, delineating a two-meter distance between customers at cash registers, erecting a physical barrier between buyer and seller and frequent disinfecting.
Shopping malls, markets, restaurants, toy stores, beauty and hair salons and clothing stores remain closed at this time.
The cabinet on Wednesday voted in favor of severely limiting commemorations and celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day and Memorial Day next week and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Israel has 14,803 confirmed coronavirus cases, including those who have recovered, and 192 Israelis have died of the virus.