Ministers set for key meeting on reopening schools, some businesses

After ending Wednesday discussion undecided, coronavirus cabinet to debate plans for resuming classes for grades 1-4 next week, reopening workplaces that serve customers in person

An empty classroom at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An empty classroom at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Sunday afternoon to make a final decision on opening elementary schools next week as virus infection numbers appeared to continue an encouraging downward trend.

Also on the agenda Sunday will be the possibility of significantly increased fines amid high rates of noncompliance with existing guidelines in some areas, and the schedule for opening some public-facing businesses, which have loudly lobbied to be allowed to swiftly resume business activity.

Ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet last met on Wednesday, but failed to come together on a plan for opening schools or advancing the opening of businesses.

At the heart of the issue is a Health Ministry demand that all students in the first grade and higher be split into pods to minimize contact between them and curb the spread of infections.

Ministers have been discussing a plan that would return kids in grades 1-4 to school — to enable parents to go back to work — while older students remain at home.

The plan to split grades 3 and 4 into pods has been approved and funded. However, the Education Ministry says implementing that solution in grades 1-2 as well, as the Health Ministry is demanding, would cost an additional NIS 5.3 billion ($1.57 billion) and require five weeks of preparation including the hiring of 13,000 new employees.

The Finance Ministry opposes any plan that would entail additional funding. The Education Ministry has proposed the resumption of studies for grades 1-2 in pods that would see each group come to school for half of the week. The government is searching for creative solutions to this problem.

The Education Ministry had been preparing to reopen schools with normal class sizes as health officials had initially said capsules would not be necessary for first-and second-graders, ostensibly because they believed that young students don’t contract and spread the virus as much as their older peers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

Education Ministry officials decided Friday to support allowing outdoor learning in a plan that could allow first- and second-grade students to return to in-person learning along with the third and fourth grades on November 1 as stated by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

According to the new Education Ministry plan, each outdoor learning pod is to comprise no more than nine students, with each group at least 100 meters apart from another and teachers allowed to cycle between up to three groups. Students will be required to wear masks and maintain two meters (6.5 feet) of social distance between one another.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that next week he will propose increasing fines for educational institutions operating in violation of virus lockdown measures, after some ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivas reopened in defiance of the regulations.

Though schools nationwide — with the exception of preschools and daycares, which  were allowed to reopen on October 18 — have been officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary and high-school yeshivas — including in high infection areas — have opened last Sunday in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.

The current fine for schools that open in violation of the guidelines stands at NIS 5,000 ($1,481)

“This isn’t directed against someone, it is meant against something: against the virus and against the disease. I expect cooperation from everyone, without exception,” Netanyahu said, without calling out ultra-Orthodox communities by name.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli kids on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon on September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

During Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu and some Blue and White ministers called for the Health Ministry’s nine-stage plan for lifting the lockdown to be shrunk to five phases, but health officials expressed concerns about shortening the reopening.

Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.

During Wednesday’s meeting, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu presented ministers with data showing a 400% increase in the number of infections in children aged 9-11 during the 2.5 weeks that schools were open in September. Health Ministry official Sharon Alroy-Preis told the cabinet that children were driving the infection.

According to Health Ministry figures published Saturday evening, the number of active cases declined to 15,876, out of 309,374 infections confirmed since the pandemic began. There were 552 people in serious condition, with 218 of them on ventilators. Another 158 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms. The death toll grew to 2,366.

Because testing rates typically fall off on the weekends and holidays, Friday saw just 27,481 tests performed, a drop from around 40,000 per day in recent weeks. There were 692 coronavirus cases recorded Friday, a positive test rate of 2.5%

Thursday marked the first time since July 3 that fewer than 1,000 new cases were recorded on a weekday (excluding Sunday, after the weekend). The number of tests performed was 32,290, with a positive test rate of 2.8%.

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