School system grapples with unprecedented challenges during wartime

With entire towns displaced and thousands of staffers called to reserve duty, education officials nationwide work to establish new schools, expand in-person and distance learning

Children shelter inside a public bomb shelter in Ashkelon, October 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Children shelter inside a public bomb shelter in Ashkelon, October 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

As Israel enters its third week of war against Hamas, the state educational system is grappling with an unprecedented and quick-changing situation, including tens of thousands of displaced students, massive staff shortages and inadequate access to bomb shelters.

The education system nationwide is dealing with many parents and staff members called up for IDF reserve duty, entire communities uprooted and traumatized, attempts to implement distance-learning and bring back some in-person instruction, all while much of the country remains under the threat of rocket fire.

Around 200,000 citizens have been displaced or evacuated from Gaza-adjacent communities as well as from the north of Israel, including residents of the cities of Sderot, Ofakim and Kiryat Shmona.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Education Minister Yoav Kisch said Eilat’s school system has essentially doubled in size due to the influx of students, and the schools there are currently working in shifts, with morning and afternoon classes, in order to accommodate them.

To meet the demand, new schools will be created in the coming days for students who have had to leave their homes due to the security situation.

These schools will be located in Eilat, the Arava, and near the Dead Sea, areas where large numbers of citizens have been transferred — due to both their relative safety from rocket fire and large numbers of hotels — and where in-person learning is permitted to proceed as normal.

Evacuees from Kibbutz Nir Oz in the lobby of a hotel in Eilat on October 17, 2023. (Aris MESSINIS / AFP)

The areas where in-person learning is permitted under certain security conditions — following the wartime rules drawn up by the Home Front Command — include most of the center and north of the country, including Jerusalem. In those areas, in-person learning is allowed to take place providing all students are able to reach shelter in time if an air raid siren sounds, among other security conditions.

About 40% of schools in those areas have already begun to have some in-person activities, the ministry said.

A ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel that they do not require the individual schools to report how many students are showing up for these in-person classes.

In most areas, distance learning under the system first devised during COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 has been slowly implemented. In order to facilitate this, the ministry has distributed nearly 5,000 laptop computers to evacuee families, with plans to provide a total of 10,000 new computers.

Laptop computers to be handed out to Israeli children evacuated from their homes so that they can take part in distance learning on October 16, 2023. (Education Ministry)

In many parts of the country, where permitted, a gradual return of morning, in-person kindergartens is also being implemented, to be operated Sunday through Thursday, subject to security and staffing concerns.

About 2,400 teachers and staff have been called up for reserve duty, making it more difficult to schedule classes and activities. Last week, it was announced that matriculation exams for 11th and 12th graders, part of the high-school graduation process, would be delayed.

A few days into the war, the Education Ministry announced an expanded system of psychological and trauma treatment services, including a hotline at *6552, ext. 5. The hotline has received “thousands of very complicated calls,” the education minister said.

Returning to routine studies, either physical or online, is intended to help students “return to functioning, find strength, process events, get social reinforcement and strengthen resilience,” the ministry said.

But it added that “no disciplinary measures will be taken against students who do not participate in learning sessions for whatever reason.”

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