School opening feud ratchets up with education minister branded COVID ‘denier’

Anonymous attack from fellow cabinet minister comes after top health official slammed as ‘acting like she’s crazy,’ amid dispute over vaccinating students, quarantines

Education MInister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a New Hope faction meeting, at the Knesset, on July 26 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education MInister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a New Hope faction meeting, at the Knesset, on July 26 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A sharp dispute on reopening schools has spiraled with a series of anonymous attacks in the media on Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton branding her a “coronavirus denier,” while a top health official was slammed as “acting like she’s crazy.”

With the opening of the school year little more than a month away, the government has not yet finalized a plan for how to operate the education system while preventing a wave of infections from spreading through schools. Although a plan was agreed on by the health and education ministries, then presented to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, media reports have said there are still serious differences on some key aspects of the plan, including the vaccination of students and quarantine arrangements.

These disputes spilled out into the public with Channel 12 on Wednesday quoting an unnamed fellow cabinet member as calling Shasha-Biton  a “coronavirus denier.”

This came a day after Channel 13 quoted a source as saying the Health Ministry’s director of public health, Sharon Alroy-Preis, “acts like she’s crazy. She’s always screaming and when she’s asked to provide figures, she stammers and is evasive. There is no data behind this hysteria.”

The network noted that the remarks came after the Health Ministry rejected minister Shasha-Biton’s plan to shorten quarantine for students to 48 hours with a negative test when the school year starts.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz both put out statements Wednesday defending Alroy-Preis, but did not offer the same support for Shasha-Biton.

Israeli students going to school in Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel recently began vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds but the majority of school students have not been inoculated. Some ministers are said to be irked at Shasha-Biton’s opposition to vaccinating children in schools and, reportedly, even to allowing schools to encourage vaccination.

“Two million Israeli school children are being held captive by a coronavirus denier,” the unnamed minister was quoted as saying to Channel 12. “Refusing to vaccinate in schools? Has she gone mad?”

Shasha-Biton, a member of the New Hope party, responded in a statement that “we have reached an absurd situation in which all the health problems of the county have disappeared and all that is left is dealing only with vaccinating children during school hours in September.”

She added that the Health Ministry still has 35 days left before schools open to push ahead with a campaign to inoculate children “and to carry out its policies instead of being busy with a campaign of “slander and mudslinging.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a conference in southern Israel on July 22, 2021. (Flash90)

The education minister got some backing from her party leader, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, whose office put out a statement saying he “condemns the anonymous and cowardly attacks,” the Walla news website reported.

“That doesn’t mean that his position is always identical to hers,” the statement noted and added that “minister [Saa’ar] understands that the matter of the framework for opening the school year was put together between the education and health ministries and presented to the prime minister.”

Other party officials told Channel 12 that “the unbridled attacks on the education minister have gone beyond good taste. Such cowardly attacks as these should be condemned and denounced.”

The unnamed sources said that health experts from across the country have backed Shasha-Biton’s plan for opening the school system and it had been agreed to by the Health Ministry.

However, there are reportedly still significant differences in opinion within the cabinet on details of the plan, including Shasha-Biton’s intention to reduce quarantine to just 48 hours for students who are exposed to a known virus carrier.

Speaking in the Knesset, she said, “We need to see how we minimize the harm to children and keep them at home as little as possible.”

“There is no need to isolate so much. With proper monitoring we can identify outbreak isites and treat them in a controlled manner,” Shasha-Biton said, according to a report from the Srugim website.

Israel Teachers Union chief Yaffa Ben-David expressed opposition to Shasha-Biton’s plan for reopening schools, though she noted she supports finding a way to open the school year on schedule on September 1.

“The plan as published in the media does not provide a response to education workers and school administrators concerning basic scenarios, when the coronavirus is raising its head and quickly spreading,” Ben-David wrote in a letter to Shasha-Biton.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during his visit at the Beilinson Medical Center, July 27, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the prime minister came to the defense of health official Alroy-Preis after Israeli television quoted what it described as unnamed sources in the high-level coronavirus cabinet lashing out at her.

“Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis is a devoted and professional public servant who works day and night for the health of Israeli citizens and the personal attack on her is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Bennett tweeted.

He added that “there is full backing for her actions,” citing Alroy-Preis’s role as a leading official in the government’s pandemic response.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Minister Horowitz, of the Meretz party, also tweeted his support of Alroy-Preis saying she has his full support and the backing of the ministry.

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