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Palestinian school year opens amid worsening pandemic in West Bank

Number of cases continues to climb, but PA premier Shtayyeh tells concerned parents that school might be ‘safer than home’

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visits an elementary school in Ramallah, on September 6, 2020. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visits an elementary school in Ramallah, on September 6, 2020. (WAFA)

Palestinian children made their way back to school in the West Bank on Sunday, even as their teachers’ salaries went unpaid and coronavirus infections reached a new high.

The Palestinian Authority Education Ministry has promised “a gradual return” to school to ensure that students are safe. So far, only students from kindergarten through fourth grade are being allowed back, as well as 12th graders. If all goes well, the remaining students will return on September 20, PA Deputy Education Minister Basri Salih said at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

According to the government’s plan, students will be spaced out in class and compelled to come with masks, while a system of rotating groups of students in and out will prevent crowding.

In PA public schools, as well as schools belonging to the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, students from first through fourth grades will split into two groups that will attend every other day. The remaining grades will remain at home for the time being.

“This is an experimental operation. We’re constantly observing the situation. If the number of infections stays as is, we’ll continue. If the situation deteriorates, we have protocols… we’ll know if we need to close the class, isolate the student and if necessary close the school,” PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in remarks at a school in Ramallah on Sunday.

Palestinian schools in the West Bank have been closed for nearly six months, since the first coronavirus lockdown began at the end of March. They briefly opened for a few days in late June only so that students could take matriculation exams in accordance with social distancing procedures.

As in Israel, the West Bank school year came right as the PA was dealing with the harshest phase of a second wave of coronavirus that has led to tens of thousands of infections and taken hundreds of lives.

There are currently 10,882 active cases of coronavirus in the West Bank, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry has regularly confirmed around 500 cases a day in the West Bank for the last several weeks, in addition to hundreds of other cases in East Jerusalem and some parts of Area C.

In his speech, Shtayyeh sought to allay parents’ concerns about sending their children back to the school in the midst of a pandemic.

“I want to tell families: The school, with all its [health] procedures, might be safer than home,” Shtayyeh said.

بانوراما مصورة تعكس عودة طلبة المرحلة الأساسية إلى مدارسهم رغم الحالة الكورونية في مختلف محافظات الوطن.

פורסם על ידי ‏وزارة التربية والتعليم الفلسطينية‏ ב- יום ראשון, 6 בספטמבר 2020

Moreover, the PA has been in an extended fiscal crisis for months. Earlier this summer, Ramallah began refusing the transfer of tax revenues it receives every month from Israel in protest of Jerusalem’s declared intention to annex parts of the West Bank. With other sources of revenue drying up, the tax revenues constituted 85 percent of the Palestinian Authority budget after the coronavirus crisis began in March.

Teachers, like other government workers, have received occasional payments of half their promised salaries when the PA can afford it for around three months.

Shtayyeh acknowledged the frustration felt by public sector employees and promised that the crisis would soon be over.

“I know this is a hard condition. I know teachers are receiving 50% of their salaries. But we are in the last 15 minutes of this fiscal crisis, and we will emerge from this crisis soon,” Shtayyeh promised.

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