Laying out targets, health official signals reopening of most schools is far off

Lawmakers are told that 1st-4th graders will return to class when only 1,000 virus infections confirmed daily, 5th graders and up when number falls to 250

Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A senior health official on Wednesday confirmed that schools would not reopen for fifth-graders and above until the daily coronavirus infection rate is reduced to 250, while younger children will be allowed to return to class sooner.

Efrat Aflalo, director of the health education and promotion department in the Health Ministry, also told a Knesset panel that children up to third grade won’t be learning in pods when schools reopen. She said first- through fourth-graders will be allowed to resume in-person learning when Israel sees 1,000 COVID-19 cases a day.

She spoke as the Health Ministry recorded 2,255 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, with the positive test rate the lowest since July. Schools have been closed since mid-September amid a spike in cases, which peaked at 9,000 and have been steadily declining amid a nationwide lockdown. The reopening of the general school system on September 1, and of ultra-Orthodox schools two weeks prior, were blamed for the massive uptick in virus cases.

“There is no disagreement among the officials in the ministry. We all agree that schools will reopen when we reach the infection targets that were set in advance, in the same way the school year was opened,” she told the Knesset’s State Control Committee.

Aflalo said health regulations would be tightened for teachers, who may be required to wear face shields in addition to masks.

First grade students and their parents ahead of the opening of the school year at a school in Efrat on August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The so-called coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday night extended the country’s lockdown until Sunday night. Ministers will meet Thursday to discuss the first phase of easing restrictions, which could see preschools and daycare centers reopened next week, in addition to small businesses that don’t serve customers in person.

The Education Ministry, which is pushing for a swift reopening of schools and preschools, released data on Tuesday supporting its position. According to ministry figures, 94 percent of preschools and 53% of grade schools have not recorded a single COVID-19 case. For high schools, the figure was 45%.

Aflalo’s timeline diverged slightly from reports on the government’s phased, four-month plan to ease the virus restrictions, which said schools will only be opened in January for students above fourth grade but didn’t provide a target number of new daily cases.

Yehud Comprehensive High School students take a matriculation examination in Yehud, July 8, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Channel 12 has reported that the second stage (dependent on 1,000 cases a day) is slated for November 1. It will see grades 1-4 return to school, synagogues reopen and elective medical procedures resume.

The third stage (dependent on 500 cases a day) is planned for mid-November. It will see businesses with in-store customers open, along with gyms, shops, shopping malls and markets.

In the fourth stage (dependent on 250 cases a day), planned for the end of November, restaurants and cafes will be able to host customers, and various leisure activities and attractions will reopen.

The fifth stage (no specific target number of cases given), set for mid-December, will see pools, hotels and guesthouses reopen. The sixth stage, at the end of December, will see museums and entertainment venues open and group sports allowed. In the seventh stage, in early January 10, all grades above fourth will be able to return to school and in the final stage, in late January, audiences will be allowed at sporting events, and clubs and bars will reopen.

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