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Kindergartens should reopen this Sunday, senior health official says

Serological tests show lower infection rates in children 9 and younger, so reopening classrooms up to 4th grade may be safe, Health Ministry’s deputy director tells lawmakers

An illustrative photo of kindergarten teachers cleaning a classroom at Emunah daycare in the city of Modiin on May 7, 2020 (Courtesy Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of kindergarten teachers cleaning a classroom at Emunah daycare in the city of Modiin on May 7, 2020 (Courtesy Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Kindergartens and preschools should be allowed to open starting Sunday, followed two weeks later by first through fourth grades, a top health official told the Knesset on Monday.

Addressing lawmakers in the Knesset Education Committee on Monday, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto did not mention a date for the opening of grades 5 and up.

Schools were shuttered last month as part of a nationwide lockdown to stem a severe second wave of coronavirus infections.

Grotto’s statements were only an assessment by health officials and not the final word on the government’s decision in the matter. A decision is expected to be made by the coronavirus cabinet in the coming days.

Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto at a press conference about the coronavirus, May 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Cabinet ministers are facing growing pressure to reopen classes soon, with many Israelis unable to work because they have nowhere to put their young children.

The chair of the Knesset Education Committee, Blue and White MK Ram Shefa, said his party “will demand the opening of classrooms in the younger cohorts beginning Sunday,” though he didn’t specify which ages.

In his comments, Grotto laid out the results of serological testing of Israeli schoolchildren, which identifies antibodies in the bloodstream and can therefore determine how many people in a tested population have had the coronavirus.

Some 5.5 percent of children under age 9 have had the virus, the tests found, a figure that rose to 8.6% for children age 10 to 13.

“There’s a significant jump in infections from age 10,” he told lawmakers, a finding that meant that any reopening of classes above the fourth grade may be delayed for some time.

In a separate discussion in the Knesset Coronavirus Committee on Monday, health officials said 5,650 children up to three years of age had tested positive for the coronavirus, a tiny portion of the estimated 540,000 total.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

“The harm to the youngest children [caused by closed preschools] is larger than the benefit of lowering the morbidity rate,” said committee chair MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. “According to all the experts, young children are infected and infect the least, and there’s no justification for leaving them stuck at home. We can’t leave their parents home and the economy closed over the long term. So the preschools must open immediately. We have to make that decision now, and not leave it to the last minute, as in the past.”

Education Ministry officials told the Education Committee on Monday that they advocated a return to the classroom as soon as possible.

MK Keren Barak (Likud) called on the ministry to “begin discussions now” on how students can make up for the time lost during lockdown in the summer months.

Grotto’s comments on Monday contradicted another top Health Ministry official who said a day earlier that schools would not be reopened next week according to a new government plan to gradually lift the lockdown.

Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, said that the latest figures indicating a slowdown in infections were “encouraging,” but noted that they were from the weekend, when testing levels typically plummet.

“We still don’t think we’ve reached the goal. We’ll see the figures from today and tomorrow and they will be more representative. There had been a continuous increase in serious patients until the lockdown, and now that is stabilizing. There are initial signs of control over the outbreak,” Alroy-Preis said in a media briefing.

Alroy-Preis said schools will likely not reopen next Sunday, when the restrictions are expected to be lifted.

“We are aware that workplaces cannot be opened without kindergartens and grades 1-4 [also opening],” she said. “We are doing this in a measured, cautious fashion so that we don’t need to go back” to a lockdown.

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