PM, ministers give tentative okay to gradual reopening of schools next week
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PM, ministers give tentative okay to gradual reopening of schools next week

A final sign-off on plan for younger students to resume studies in separate groups Sunday is dependent on research into infection levels among children

Students arrive at school after the Purim holiday outside Hadar Elementary School in Kfar Yona, on March 12, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Students arrive at school after the Purim holiday outside Hadar Elementary School in Kfar Yona, on March 12, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

A panel of government ministers focused on the coronavirus crisis on Monday approved a plan to gradually reopen schools, with some children returning to class as soon as next Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he too confirmed the plan, though it is dependent on infections remaining low and the findings of research being conducted for the Health Ministry on infection rates among children.

Kindergartners and first- through third-graders will be the first to go back to the school under the Education Ministry plan, with grades above third continuing to study remotely for now.

Schoolchildren will study from Sunday to Thursday in smaller classes than usual, while kindergartens will be divided into groups that meet on different days to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They will thus still need their parents’ care for some of the week as they study remotely from home.

The Education Ministry also said recess at elementary schools would be held at different times to prevent students from congregating in the school yard.

“We’ve done serious and significant administrative work to adapt the [education] system to the Health Ministry’s directives,” Education Minister Rafi Peretz said in a statement, stressing that schools will be opened “cautiously to prevent a renewed outbreak.”

The decision by the special ministerial committee dealing with Israel’s response to the coronavirus came as Netanyahu hosted a meeting to discuss various strategies for a gradual return to school.

Chairs are seen on desks in a classroom at a closed school in the northern city of Safed on March 13, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The move to reopen schools came as Israel took its biggest step Sunday toward reopening the economy, allowing many nonessential businesses to reopen for the first time in a month, as new virus cases and the numbers of seriously ill have steadily declined.

In Israel, where most parents both work full time, reopening the economy would necessitate a solution for younger children who cannot be left unsupervised. The Bank of Israel said Thursday that the shutdown of the education system was costing the economy around NIS 2.6 billion ($737 million) per week as many households have had to keep one parent tending to children instead of working.

The government last week allowed special education students to return to class under directives capping class sizes.

Schools have been shut since mid-March as the government began imposing wide restrictions on movement in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Most teachers have continued to teach via teleconferencing, though the program has been met with reports of only middling success.

A teacher leads a remote class from her home in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion on April 19, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Saturday defined new parameters on which to base its decisions regarding the easing or tightening of restrictions on the public and the economy, amid widespread criticism of a confused decision-making process.

These include the number of new daily sick remaining below 300 and the number of seriously ill also staying under that number.

If one of those limits are passed, it could derail plans for a gradual return to studies. On April 20, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said that his ministry was preparing for the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak next winter, and cautioned that such an outbreak would be “much more complicated and challenging” than the current one.

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