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No decision yet on school reopening plan as Health and Education ministries spar

Bennett tells ministers to sort out remaining differences hours after Education Ministry claims Health Ministry agreed to plan to open all schools, try 48-hour quarantine

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with officials at his office in Jerusalem to discuss plans for reopening of schools, July 25, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with officials at his office in Jerusalem to discuss plans for reopening of schools, July 25, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel’s government failed to approve a plan for the operation of soon-to-reopen schools Sunday, after ministers meeting on the matter remained at loggerheads over quarantine regulations and what limits to place on schools in high coronavirus infection zones.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton is pushing for a plan that would see almost the entire education system open while limiting quarantine for students or the closure of schools in areas where outbreaks are identified.

However, the Health Ministry is demanding a tighter framework, according to Hebrew media reports, despite the Education Ministry claiming that it already agreed to its plan.

At the meeting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly told Shasha-Biton and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to work on bridging the gaps between them, Channel 13 News reported.

Last year, infections and quarantine for those exposed to infected people sent tens of thousands of school children into quarantine for up to two weeks at a time, closing schools and forcing parents to take time off work to attend to them.

Bennett told ministers that the goal is “to not harm the economy, not harm education, and not impact daily life.”

Israel has been facing a growing wave of COVID-19 infections. The number of serious cases topped 100 for the first time in three months on Sunday, according to Health Ministry figures.

Most schools are slated to open September 1, though some religious schools will open as early as August 8.

Earlier Sunday, the Education Ministry published its plan for opening the school system. According to the plan, all schools will open as normal regardless of local infection rates, and will only be closed in a case of a “a dramatic increase in morbidity rates,” in consultation with local education officials.

Bussing will also resume as normal, and local school administrators will have wide leeway in determining whether to limit classroom sizes, implement classroom pods or move to remote learning as they see fit.

In areas deemed “orange,” the second most severe level of Israel’s color-coded infection rate system, the ministry said “preventative actions” would be taken, largely at the discretion of local officials.

In a preemptive move, during August and September, there will be a nationwide serological testing campaign aimed at identifying students who have virus antibodies by testing all students and education staff who are not exempt from quarantine.

The ministry also said it had reached an agreement with the Health Ministry for a pilot program to reduce quarantine for students exposed to the virus to just 48 hours if they have a negative virus test.

Currently, those who have not been vaccinated or have not recovered from COVID-19 are required to quarantine for a week after exposure to virus carriers or international travel, as well as have two negative virus tests, after the government shortened it from 10 days earlier this month. The vaccinated and recovered are not required to enter isolation unless they are confirmed to have the virus after taking a test.

“Students paid a high price over the last year and a half, due to isolation and being cut off from their social environment, as well as the loss of study days. We have a moral and educational duty to create certainty and stability for their personal and emotional resilience,” Shasha-Biton said in the statement.

Some ministers at the meeting accused Shasha-Biton of populism, with one saying she is “busy mostly with herself and media headlines” and ignoring the recommendations of professionals, Channel 12 News reported.

“It is populist, unserious, conduct,” a minister was quoted as saying.

Israeli students going to school in Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The ministry said the plan had been agreed to by the Health Ministry, but reports indicated that several areas of dispute remained. According to Channel 13, the sides remained at loggerheads over the 48-hour quarantine, allowing local school officials to determine whether to close schools, operating schools in areas with the high infection rates and where the funding for all the proposed virus tests will come from.

During the cabinet meeting, ministers reviewed alternative frameworks for cities deemed orange or red — the highest infection rate — that would implement pods for some middle school and high school classrooms, the report said.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash said that there are “a few points that are not closed” and that need clarification with the Education Ministry, in a video briefing Sunday.

Ash also said that Israel may begin administering a third COVID-19 coronavirus shot even before the US Food and Drug Administration has approved the measure.

However, officials in the national coronavirus headquarters criticized the announcement as “irresponsible” saying there has not yet been enough research on the matter, Channel 13 reported, citing unnamed sources.

As of Sunday evening, there were close to 11,000 active COVID cases in Israel, compared to 1,990 on July 1. Currently, 201 patients with COVID are hospitalized, 101 in serious condition, 24 in critical condition and 19 on ventilators. So far in July, 29 people have died of COVID in Israel, compared to nine people in the entire month of June.

Bennett told the meeting that he saw vaccination as key to stemming rising infection rates.

“In the end, we know that a certain critical mass is needed to stop the disease,” Bennett said.

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