Ministers decide to ease virus regulations for in-person classes at schools

Health and education ministries agree to scrap ‘traffic light’ plan that quarantined classes based on vaccination rates, starting Sunday; decision pending committee approval

Israeli schoolchildren return to school after the Sukkot holiday, in Tel Aviv, on September 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israeli schoolchildren return to school after the Sukkot holiday, in Tel Aviv, on September 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The health and education ministries agreed on Thursday to end the school “traffic light” program, which determined whether schools could hold in-person lessons based on the vaccination rates in each class.

With infections hitting record levels, health and education officials determined that classroom vaccination rates should no longer be a deciding factor for in-person lessons, since a low vaccination rate could force an entire class to go remote.

The decision will effectively ease schools’ ability to hold in-person classes during the Omicron-driven infection wave.

The education system will instead adopt the policy used in commercial settings, where vaccinated workers exposed to a COVID-19 carrier take a rapid antigen test and remain at home until they receive a negative result. Positive results require 10-days of quarantine.

The unvaccinated need to quarantine for a week after exposure, and can only be released after passing an antigen test at a testing facility, not at their own homes.

If the new school policy is ratified by the Knesset’s Education Committee, all schools and daycare centers will return to full in-person activity on Sunday. Directives limiting close contact among students and capping class sizes at 70% capacity will be lifted.

The new policy will also authorize school district physicians to decide whether it’s necessary to shut down a school in the event of an outbreak.

Teachers and school visitors will need to present a “green card” showing they are protected from the virus to enter school grounds, although unvaccinated teachers can provide negative test results instead.

Students will still be required to wear masks in school.

A COVID-19 rapid antigen test is performed in Jerusalem, on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The surging Omicron variant has also spurred new virus testing protocols to ease the long lines at testing sites and conserve supplies.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday announced new testing policies that will go into effect at midnight between Thursday and Friday.

Under the new rules, those over the age of 60 or considered at risk, must take a PCR test if they are exposed to a virus carrier. With a negative result, they will be exempt from quarantine, but a positive result will require 10 days in isolation. They will not need to take a second test at the end of that period but will require a doctor’s approval to end quarantine.

Anyone else who is fully vaccinated or recovered must perform an antigen test after contact with a virus carrier, either at home or from a supervised testing station. With a negative result, they are also exempt from quarantine.

If a positive result is recorded on a home antigen test, they must go for a supervised antigen test for confirmation. If that too is positive, then they must quarantine for 10 days, with release also obtained with a doctor’s approval rather than another test.

Additionally, a vaccinated or recovered individual who is caring for a virus patient under the age of 12 must remain in quarantine until they get a negative result from an antigen test performed at an official location at the end of the child’s quarantine period.

Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital staff wear safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But just before the new testing regulations took effect, Channel 12 reported that health officials were trying to convince decision-makers to change course due to concerns regarding the accuracy of antigen tests.

Israelis have swamped drugstores to purchase home antigen tests, but some health experts, including US officials in the FDA, have warned they are far less accurate than PCR tests, especially when it comes to the Omicron variant.

Channel 12 said one health official acknowledged that the old rules requiring most exposed Israelis to get a PCR test was unsustainable, but warned that negative antigen tests were not accurate.

The new rules requiring under-60s to rely on antigen tests will lead to inaccurate, low confirmed infection figures, the official said.

“This decision is one step too far. We will have more and more infections in the public and by next week we will get a distorted picture of the data,” the official said.

Ynet reported that some officials fear Israelis who test positive at home will not report their infections.

People line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2022 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is aware of the new testing outline’s risks and asked during a discussion Thursday to allow under-60s with symptoms to take a PCR test as well, Channel 12 reported. It wasn’t clear whether the request had been accepted by health officials.

Bennett views the Omicron variant as a serious threat, despite its less severe symptoms than previous virus strains. Bennett has instructed health officials to prepare for a worst-case scenario of 4,000 virus patients with serious symptoms, even though experts have predicted between 1,000-2,500 concurrent serious cases, Ynet reported.

The health system intends to prevent a surge in serious cases by distributing Pfizer’s new antiviral medication to at-risk infected individuals, and by further vaccinating over-60s with a fourth dose, the report said.

Officials expect the Omicron infection wave to last for two months and begin subsiding in several weeks.

The Health Ministry reported Thursday evening that an additional 16,193 Israelis tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday, as the daily figure continued to climb rapidly, thanks to the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

However, this has not translated to nearly as steep a rise in serious cases, which rose to 133, compared to 108 on Monday.

Of the 133 serious cases, 53 are in critical condition, 15 are hooked up to ECMO machines and 41 are hooked up to respirators. The death toll rose to 8,259, climbing by 14 since Monday.

The positive test rate rose to 7.88%, with 207,139 Israelis getting tested on Wednesday

Thus far, 6,609,965 Israelis have received the first vaccine dose, 5,952,918 have received the second dose and 4,304,935 have received the booster.

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