Omicron sweeps through schools, infecting over 38,000 students

Head of teachers union appeals to prime minister for studies to be moved online; children’s hospital reopens youth COVID wing

A worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nearly 40,000 students are currently sick with COVID-19, and nearly 85,000 staff and students are in quarantine due to contact with confirmed carriers, according to Education Ministry figures Monday.

The ministry said 38,246 students and another 6,148 staff have been confirmed with the coronavirus. In addition, there are 81,851 students and 3,344 teaching staff in quarantine due to exposure to a known virus patient.

There are 2.5 million children in the Israeli education system.

Israel has seen its daily COVID caseload jump to record levels over the past week as the highly infectious Omicron variant spreads across the country.

With officials and experts predicting that the peak has yet to come in what is the country’s fifth wave of infections since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, the Safra Children’s Hospital in Tel Hashomer intends to reopen its COVID ward on Tuesday, the Walla news website reported.

The ward has space for up to 50 children.

Even with cases among children on the rise, Israel has done away with curbs on in-person learning in high infection areas with low vaccination rates, and the Education Ministry has vowed to keep schools open.

Efrat Laufer, head of health at the Education Ministry told the Ynet website that closing schools would leave kids worse off.

“An educational system, an educational framework, is a very strong anchor for students. We have seen that once students have gone home [due to the virus], studied via Zoom, then the mental damage is immense,” Laufer said, referring to experience gained in the past with distance learning.

In its efforts to keep the school system running, the education and health ministries agreed on a plan that will see selected members of staff at institutes tasked with carrying out on-site virus antigen tests as a way of keeping as many students in the classroom as possible.

While she could not put a specific date on when designated virus testers will begin testing students, Laufer expressed hope it will be some time this week.

“Every person who carries out an invasive test needs training,” she said, explaining that training began this week along with the distribution of virus test kits to education institutes and kindergartens.

Screen capture from video of Efrat Laufer, head of health at the Education Ministry, on January 10, 2022. (Ynet)

Laufer said an in-school vaccination program had so far given doses to 70,000 children, less than expected, but noted that many of the children may not have been vaccinated at all were it not for the school program.

While the Education Ministry is determined to keep schools open, the Secondary School Teachers Association is pushing for remote studies.

Association chief Ran Erez penned a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, demanding that middle and high school studies be moved online, charging that the government has lost control of the pandemic.

While acknowledging the disadvantages of studies via the Zoom application, Erez warned against what he termed the current “anarchy and pandemonium” and said remote studies would be the “lesser evil.”

“You tasked school managers with making decisions and acting as they please,” he said, referring to government policy. “This will cause the entire system to collapse, or worse, explode.”

“Mr. prime minister, you are responsible. We can’t keep operating the secondary school system without test kits and while forcing teachers to work like in a Russian roulette [game].”

Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers’ Association, at the National Labor Court, on August 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Omer Shachar, head of the National Students Council, told Ynet that what is bothering students most is not the virus testing they undergo to be eligible to attend classes but “simply the disorganization and the fear that you don’t really know what is going to happen.”

Students in their last year of high school, who are preparing for matriculation tests that could determine their academic future, fear going to schools because of confirmed cases among their classmates, leaving them caught between concerns over the virus and concerns at having to study remotely, he said.

He lamented the contestant changes in government policy in which “every day or two something new, something changes, something confusing.”

There has been growing public frustration at government policy in dealing with the virus, and in particular regarding testing rules that many find confusing while also causing hours-long lines at virus testing stations.

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