Some 2 million Israeli school kids grabbed their backpacks and headed back to school Thursday morning, as the 2016-17 school year got off to a largely uneventful start.
According to the Education Ministry, a total of 2,232,172 students are attending 4,733 schools and 18,972 kindergartens this year. Of those, 158,958 were starting first grade, and 123,497 were starting 12th grade, their last in the state-run educational system.
In a statement, Education Ministry director Michal Cohen said the year “started as planned” despite the annual threats of strikes by parents or teacher associations.
The central Arab town of Tira appeared to be the exception, where a school strike over the disputed ownership of the town’s two high schools kept thousands of kids at home.
Praising the “festive morning,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the Israeli educational system was “more personalized and more professional than ever.”
For the 2016-17 school year, the average size of first- and second-grade classes was reduced from 34 to 28 kids, and kindergartens were allotted an additional teaching assistant so that “each child will be given more warmth and love,” said Bennett, whose office sent out pictures of him with his children on their way to school.
Meanwhile, hundreds of parents and students protested outside a Tel Aviv high school that the municipality announced would be revamped into a school for the children of the city’s predominantly African migrants.
Angry parents of students at Shevah Mofet have demanded Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai support the continued functioning of the school in its present form, and are scheduled to meet with school administrators later on Thursday to discuss the issue.
In an interview with Army Radio, Bennett offerded assurances that classes at Shevah Mofet have “begun normally without any demographic change whatsoever this year.”
Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the academic year at a school in the northern Arab city of Tamra. In an address to some 200 elementary school students, the prime minister urged coexistence and increased integration for Israel’s Arab communities.
“I want you all to learn about the history of the Jewish people as well as of the Arab communities and learn the truth. We are meant to live together,” said Netanyahu, who drew criticism ahead of the 2015 elections with a video statement about “droves” of Israeli Arab voters that some deemed racist.
“I want you all to be doctors, scientists, writer or whatever it is you want, to be integrated and loyal citizens of Israel,” he said. “This is your country.”