Students returning to school following the Sukkot vacation will be required to present a negative COVID antigen test, the coronavirus cabinet ruled on Sunday.
The measure came as serious COVID cases hit their highest figure so far this month, 10 days after the end of Rosh Hashanah.
Close to 7,500 Israelis tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday, 59 percent of them school-age children, the Health Ministry said. As of Sunday morning, close to 45,000 students have COVID, and another 92,000 are in mandatory quarantine following exposure to a COVID patient.
Most students across Israel are in school on Sunday for the final day ahead of the festival of Sukkot, which begins Monday evening. The majority of schools are shut for the entire weeklong holiday, with children slated to return to classrooms September 30, two days after the holiday ends.
The new measure — pending approval by the Knesset Education Committee — is expected to apply to all students in pre-kindergartens through sixth grade. Ahead of the start of the school year on September 1, parents of all students in first through sixth grades were requested to pick up rapid antigen testing kits from schools and administer them to their kids, but they were not made mandatory for admission to classrooms.
Rapid tests can be completed at home and results take less than 15 minutes. According to the new measure — approved by the attorney general — parents or guardians will be asked to pick up a testing kit from Magen David Adom distribution sites and sign a declaration that the test came back negative.
The plan drew criticism from school and kindergarten teachers, who said it was not their job to monitor students’ adherence to health regulations.
At a meeting of the committee Sunday, Yaffa Ben David, who is secretary-general of the Israel Teachers’ Union, told lawmakers that school principals and kindergarten teachers are not supposed to be “coronavirus wardens.”
“Someone here is completely confused,” she said.
Ben David said that if the regulation is passed, the ITA will petition the High Court of Justice “to prevent this decree.”
The association of kindergarten teachers likewise said in a statement “we are not the police and our job is not to prevent entry to kindergarten.”
According to Health Ministry statistics released Sunday morning, the number of Israelis hospitalized in serious condition with COVID has risen to its highest level in close to three weeks.
The latest figures report 726 Israelis with the coronavirus in serious condition as of Sunday morning, compared to 709 one week ago and 650 on Thursday. As of Sunday, there were 83,809 active COVID cases in the country, with 1,191 of them hospitalized, 726 in serious condition and 195 of those on ventilators.
More than 66% of all those in serious condition are unvaccinated, and less than 8% of them have received three vaccination doses. Among those under 60 in serious condition, 80% are unvaccinated and less than 4% have received a booster shot.
Over the weekend, Israel surpassed more than 7,500 dead of the coronavirus since the outbreak of the pandemic. According to the latest figures, 7,511 Israelis with COVID have died since March 2020, and more than 1,000 have died in the past six weeks alone.
As of Sunday morning, 3,040,426 people in Israel — 33% of the total population — have received a third booster dose of the vaccine. Israeli health officials are concerned that the booster campaign could slow down following the decision on Friday of the US Food and Drug Administration to not approve vaccine booster shots for the general American population — but only for those 65 and over.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett predicted Saturday night that the US will gradually begin to offer the shot more widely after being presented with scientific data from Israel.
“I estimate that the FDA will gradually approve the extension of the vaccine to more age groups, as has happened in Israel, as the effectiveness of the second vaccine continues to decline even among younger age groups,” he said.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said on Saturday that she too believes the US will make the third dose more widely available with time. “We are ahead of them by about three months,” she explained to Channel 12 news, in reference to both the highly contagious Delta wave, which began hitting Israel in June, and the rolling out of the booster shots. She reiterated that the vaccines “lose their effectiveness over time and it’s not dependent on age, which is why we wanted to vaccinate everyone [over 12].”
While Israel initially made the booster shot available only to those over 60, all Israelis over the age of 12 are currently eligible to receive a third shot if five months have passed since their second dose.
According to the latest Health Ministry statistics, 66% of those over age 90 have received a third dose, as have 75% of those ages 80-89, 78% of those ages 70-79 and 70% of those ages 60-69. Among the population under 60, however, the rate of booster shots drops, with 57% of those ages 50-59 getting the shot, 46% of those 40-49 and just 34% of those ages 30-39.
Officials have said they now fear greater wariness about the third vaccine and potential legal challenges over its mandating a third shot as part of the Green Pass policy — slated to come into effect on October 1.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.