Task force warns of sharp rise in cases as lockdown eases

Ministry proposes alternate school days, outdoors, in cities worst-hit by virus

Cabinet set to convene to discuss a Tuesday reopening of school system; plan allows full indoor school week for kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 in low-infection localities

A first-grade student on his first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem, on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
A first-grade student on his first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem, on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israeli students are set to return to studies on Tuesday, but not necessarily to the classroom.

Ministers will reportedly convene Sunday night to approve a Health Ministry proposal to partially reopen the nation’s school system on Tuesday, allowing kindergartens to open and studies to fully commence for some grades in cities that have lower infection rates.

The ministry proposal would allow kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 to reopen only in “green” and “yellow” cities according to the “traffic light” system, which grades municipalities based on infection rates.

However, for cities deemed “orange” and “red,” studies will only be allowed to take place in the open air, with classes split into two groups attending on alternate days, the reports said.

Children and teachers at the Gan Nayot kindergarten in Jerusalem as they return to school on May 10, 2020, for the first time in over 2 months. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Kindergartens were expected to be allowed to open but it was unclear what the format would be.

According to Hebrew-language reports, the plan also proposed that daycares for children up until the age of three could fully open in all cities.

Speaking Saturday night, Heath Minister Yuli Edelstein said the ministry was “looking for a solution for the red and orange cities.”

The proposal was brought up at a Saturday night meeting where ministers extended the closure of the education system by 48 hours despite the easing of the nationwide lockdown Sunday morning.

Illustrative: Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Sunday morning that the outline “allows students to return while placing appropriate limits on cities with high morbidity and more risk.”

“We are on the way out but the road is long, we have to be careful,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

A military task force on Sunday morning warned of a possible sharp increase in infections due to an easing of the lockdown combined with a rise in cases caused by the more contagious British strain of the coronavirus.

“In the coming weeks, a sharp increase in morbidity is expected due to the removal of restrictions and the spread of the British strain,” the task force said.

Medical workers test people at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in Lod, on February 2, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel’s third nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 was eased on Sunday at 7 a.m. after over a month, as the country continues to grapple with thousands of daily new cases and a death toll that has reached over 5,000.

The lockdown was initially scheduled to lift partially on Friday, but a cabinet agreement late Thursday extended the closure to Sunday following an hours-long meeting and heated exchanges between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

As of Sunday morning, restrictions on individual travel to within 1,000 meters of people’s homes have been lifted; nature reserves, national parks, heritage sites, and Israel Antiquities Authority sites will reopen to the public; businesses that do not cater to the public will reopen; restaurant takeout services and businesses with individual interactions, like hairdressers and cosmeticians, will be allowed to operate; and vacation rentals will be allowed to cater to single families.

Meanwhile, Ben Gurion Airport will remain closed until at least February 20, according to a government decision on Friday. Israel’s main international airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft, as authorities seek to prevent the entry of people who might be carrying coronavirus variants, such as those that have contributed to the latest spike in case numbers.

A staff member works in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the decision to ease the lockdown, Israel continues to grapple with a high infection rate.

According to Health Ministry figures Sunday morning, Israel recorded 2,624 new coronavirus infections on Saturday out of some 28,000 tests performed. As usual, notably fewer tests are carried out over the weekend. The positivity rate of Saturday’s tests was up to 9.6 percent.

A total of 1,110 patients were listed in serious condition, including 302 who are ventilated. The death toll climbed to 5,074 as of Sunday morning, according to ministry figures.

Israel’s successful vaccination program with the Pfizer/BioNtech shot is ongoing, with 3,426,415 people having received the first dose and 2,015,108 of them also having received the second dose as of Sunday morning.

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