Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Barlev suggested on Saturday that Israel should postpone the opening of the school year by a month — given the upcoming Jewish High Holiday period when schools are closed and the current surge in coronavirus infections driven by the Delta variant — and send kids back to school on October 1.
Speaking at a cultural event in Tel Aviv, Barlev said on Saturday that he recently told members of the coronavirus cabinet that, because there would only be about a handful of full days of school in September — due to the holiday period of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot — the school year should start a month later instead.
“I do not understand the logic of starting on September 1, when there are only six school days in the entire month and when the morbidity curve is where it is at today,” said Barlev, a member of the Labor Party in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition.
Delaying the opening of the school year would help stem the spread of the virus, he argued.
“Pupils under 12 and adolescents over that age have yet to be vaccinated and are the main spreaders of the Delta variant, therefore postponing the start of the school year will help bend the [coronavirus] morbidity curve during September,” said Barlev in comments cited by Hebrew-language news sites.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton later rebuffed Barlev’s call to delay the start of the school year, saying it would take place September 1 as planned.
“We will open the year in a safe and controlled manner in accordance with the plan that was agreed upon with the Health Ministry,” she was quoted as saying by Army Radio.
Israel began vaccinating children aged 12-15 in June, and recently approved inoculations for children aged 5-11 who have serious background illnesses that could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Inoculation rates for the 12-15 age group have remained moderate with just under 30 percent of eligible kids receiving the second shot, according to Health Ministry figures.
The Delta variant is certainly the most transmissible coronavirus variant to date, according to health officials, but it has not been determined if children are the “main spreaders” as Barlev suggested. However, the unvaccinated, including children, are the most vulnerable to the variant.
Among adults, the rate of serious infections in Israel is six times higher among those who fail to inoculate than others in the same age bracket.
According to Health Ministry figures, the rate of active cases among unvaccinated kids aged 12-15 stood at 657 per 100,000 people — or 0.006% of active infections, which reached close to 45,000 as of Friday.
Among kids aged 12-15 who were fully vaccinated, the rate dropped to 76.1 per 100,000 people, or 0.0007%.
There are currently 2,580 unvaccinated children aged 12-15 among Israel’s active cases, and close to 800 unvaccinated adolescents aged 16-19.
Barlev said that the coronavirus cabinet has yet to accept his suggestion to postpone the opening of the school year.
On Sunday, Bennett approved a plan prepared by the education, health and defense ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office for reopening the next school year on September 1.
Under the plan, all 1.6 million kids in kindergarten and grades 1-6 will undergo a serology test to check if they have COVID-19 antibodies. Those who are found to have recovered from the disease will receive a Green Pass that exempts them from quarantine if they are exposed to confirmed carriers.
The Home Front Command is helping the Health Ministry with the serological testing program.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19, that student will enter quarantine, and their entire class will be required to get tested for the virus.
Those who test positive will also enter quarantine, and those who test negative can stay in class as long as they get tested every day for seven days. Those who refuse to be tested daily will have to enter quarantine as is currently required.
Students in schools in cities and towns that are considered “orange” or “red” under the traffic light system will all be tested once a week, as is standard.
The implementation of serological testing comes as the plan to carry out vaccinations in schools faces obstacles in the government.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Friday that children will be vaccinated against COVID-19 in schools at the start of the academic year, despite a dispute with the education minister on the issue.
Shasha-Biton, the education minister, has courted controversy by calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.”
“At the start of the school year we will be vaccinating in schools,” Horowitz said two days ago. “We will be vaccinating everywhere, because we are in an emergency and we will make every effort we can to get everywhere and vaccinate everyone who needs it.”
In an apparent challenge to Shasha-Biton over who has the final word on vaccinating children in schools, Horowitz said on Thursday that “the authority over health, including inside schools, is that of the Health Ministry, that is the law.”
Horowitz added that “the decision regarding vaccinations and everything to do with health is the decision of the health minister, and that is my authority according to the law.”
Last month, Shasha-Biton was rebuked by Bennett for feuding with health officials, and as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee during the last government, she struck down several virus restrictions passed by the cabinet.
The director-general of her ministry, Yigal Slovik, said last week that inoculations could be carried out in school, though not during school hours.
“We are in favor of vaccines and we will allow vaccines within schools. We have no problem with that,” Slovik told Radio 103. “But it is not right to engage with vaccinations during school hours as students return [to the classroom] after a really difficult year emotionally, socially and pedagogically.
“Anyone who wants to use the infrastructure of the schools to vaccinate people can do so. But the role of school principals and teachers is to engage in education, not vaccines,” Slovik said.
The serological testing is being rolled out first in the Haredi community, which reopened its schools last Monday. It is slated to be expanded to the general population ahead of the national school year opening, scheduled for September 1.
The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel was hit disproportionately hard throughout much of the pandemic, with critics charging that outbreaks were often driven by a lack of adherence to coronavirus regulations in some Haredi communities.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.