Netanyahu says all students to return to class in low-infection areas

Premier proposes extending school year into summer to make up for lost time; teachers’ leaders oppose plan

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Fifth grade students return to school in Efrat, February 21, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Fifth grade students return to school in Efrat, February 21, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Schools will fully open in low-infection areas in the coming days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, adding that he will present a plan to extend the school year into the summer to make up for lost time.

The proposal was immediately opposed by teacher union leaders, while Netanyahu’s political rivals accused him of engaging in empty campaign promises.

Netanyahu said classes will resume in “green” and “yellow” areas with low-infection rates, including for grades 7-10, which had so far remained closed.

He said that he, along with Education Minister Yoav Gallant, will bring a framework for extending the school year into July.

“There is a need to make up for the educational gaps that were created during this difficult year,” Netanyahu said. “We need to give every boy and girl in Israel the opportunity to make up what they missed. This is what Israeli children need, and what they deserve.”

The effort was part of a multi-step process to bring the education system out of the pandemic, the premier said.

He stressed that the government will protect the rights of teachers and make sure to pay them all required sums for the extended school year. According to Channel 12, teacher participation would be voluntary and teachers who agree to take part would be paid bonuses.

Netanyahu made the statement during a live speech at the Education Ministry that was broadcast on his social media channels.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Education Ministry, February 28, 2021. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Speaking after Netanyahu, Gallant said the plan to close educational gaps will consist of four parts, with Sunday’s announcement marking the beginning of the first step.

The studies in July will focus on closing learning gaps in math, English, Hebrew and science, Gallant said.

Finance Minister Israel Katz said he had accepted the plan, and that funding will come from a budget of NIS 4.2 billion ($1.27 billion) to help the education system cope with the pandemic, and NIS 20 billion ($6.03 billion) in the budget earmarked for “reinforcing the education system.”

Meanwhile Channel 12 said it was not clear that funds existed for the plan. Neither Finance Ministry nor Health Ministry officials were involved in formulating the plan, the report said.

The head of the Secondary School Teachers’ Association, Ran Erez, and the leader of the Teachers’ union, Yaffa Ben-David, both opposed the school year extending beyond June, though they did leave the door open for voluntary teachers’ work.

Neither were present during Netanyahu’s speech, but he addressed them both by name in an attempt to placate opposition to his outline.

Children return to school in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s political foes blasted the outline.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, said: “For months we’ve pushed off making up school days and at the end [you] make a campaign move with nothing behind it.”

“Netanyahu, you’re playing a cynical game with the children of Israel. We will demand and bring a real plan, with a budget and coordination, and not a fake, embarrassing, improvised plan,” Gantz said.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman mocked the plan on Twitter by referring to Netanyahu’s ongoing woes financing his legal defense in the corruption cases against him.

“You’re not capable of paying your lawyers, and you’re going to pay the teachers?!” Liberman wrote.

Meanwhile Channel 12 said the Health Ministry was not necessarily supportive of the plan to reopen more classes in the coming days, and was actually considering requesting postponing the move due to climbing infection rates.

Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, said that “there are talks between the Education and Health Ministries. I am not reconciled to this plan… In general, we support the reopening of schools and giving priority to getting children out of the house, but we said we need some more time.”

Schools have been largely shuttered in Israel for much of the past year.

Earlier this month, grades 5-6 and 11-12 were permitted to resume in-person classes in low-infection cities or medium-infected ones with high rates of vaccination. Kindergartens and grades 1-4 previously opened in cities designated as low-infection “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates.

The loosening of rules came amid a decline in morbidity, particularly among high-risk groups, which is largely being credited to Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign.

Infection rates among children and school reopenings are a central concern as Israel steps out of its third wave virus outbreak. Children represent a larger proportion of infections than earlier in the pandemic, presumably due to the new virus variants and the fact that a significant share of adults have been vaccinated.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has urged caution when it comes to reopening the education system.

The vaccine has not yet been approved for children under 16, although Israel has vaccinated dozens who suffer specific COVID-19 risk factors. No serious side effects have been reported.

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