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School admin staff sent back to work as education system’s reopening nears

Health officials warn that the move risks lives, while Bank of Israel says shutdown of schools costing economy around NIS 2.6 billion per week

Illustrative: First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at Hashalom elementary school in Mevaseret Zion, September 1, 2019. (Flash90)
Illustrative: First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at Hashalom elementary school in Mevaseret Zion, September 1, 2019. (Flash90)

School administrative staff were ordered back to work on Thursday in an apparent sign that Israel would soon gradually ease its pandemic restrictions and allow schools to reopen.

A statement from the Education Ministry said administrative employees would be returning to schools subject to Health Ministry guidelines.

“One step at a time, the education system is returning to routine,” said Education Minister Rafi Peretz. “We are doing everything we can to get the education system running again and the return of administrative teams to schools is another step in that direction.

“We are ready to gradually return to routine, albeit in small groups and in a rotational capacity,” Peretz added. “If businesses and shopping centers are opening, there is no reason why the education system should not reopen as well, even if it must be in a different format.”

Rafi Peretz, then-leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

However, health officials have cautioned against reopening schools at this stage, stressing concerns that children may infect each other widely and that while they themselves may be able to weather the virus, their parents and grandparents will have a harder time doing so.

“The reinstatement of the education system will come at the cost of human lives,” Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto warned Thursday during an Army Radio interview.

“This is not the time to let our guard down. Chances are there will be a second outbreak wave. We see a possibility that thousands will need to be on ventilators,” he alarmingly added.

Thus far, only special education programs have restarted operations, albeit in a limited capacity, while daycares and all other schooling has remained on the back burner.

Those ordered by the Education Ministry on Thursday to return in the first wave are principals, deputy principals, secretaries, bookkeepers and caretakers.

In addition to secretarial work, budget management, account managing, payments and registrations, administrative staffs will be tasked with drawing up strategies to allow the gradual return of students while also fine-tuning the education system’s online learning, which will continue to require use for the near future.

A closed school in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 13, 2020, as part of preventive measures amid fears over the spread of the coronavirus. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The administrative staff has also been tasked with preparing for classes to run through summer vacation to make up for time missed due to the pandemic, the Education Ministry said.

But as the Education Ministry prepares to reopen schools, the head of the teachers’ union has hinted that administrative staff might have to plan for instructors not to be present.

During a Wednesday Knesset hearing on the education system, Yaffa Ben David accused the Finance Ministry of “taking advantage of the crisis,” of demonizing her union and of “turning parents against teachers.”

Ben David argued that teachers have already worked for 13 days without pay, preparing lesson plans and leading online learning sessions in the past two months of the pandemic.

“Teachers are on the phone talking to parents until the wee hours of the morning. The work day doesn’t end at 2 p.m.,” she said, demanding an improvement to teachers’ work conditions.

“We will under no circumstances work for free. No workforce sector has contributed as much as we have,” Ben David added.

Secretary-general of the Israel Teachers’ Union Yaffa Ben-David speaks during a protest event in Tel Aviv on August 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Separately Thursday, the Bank of Israel announced that the shutdown of the education system was costing the economy around NIS 2.6 billion per week.

The central bank’s calculation is based on the assumption that 408,000 households have to leave one parent at home to look after children. According to the BOI, Israel has 370,000 households with a child up to the age of 4 and a further 110,000 households have children between the ages of 5 and 9, but without sibling over the age of 15 who can look after them. The bank assumes that 15% of the total 480,000 households are able to provide a solution, thus leaving the number at 408,000 households.

In addition, the BOI said that the shutdown will cost a further estimated NIS 1 billion per week in future productivity as a result of skills that remained untaught.

The BOI added that while it is not possible to accurately gauge the cost to the economy of the “loss of educational production,” the education system has a “central role in shaping future generations, which is reflected inter alia in the economy’s long-term productivity.”

The estimate of NIS 1 billion per week does not take into account the beneficial impact of distance learning, the BOI clarified.

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