'We’re trying to give the kids as much routine as possible'

Schools and students displaced in the north learn to deal with chaos sown by war

Finding new, safer locations with bomb shelters and operating short-staffed are just some of the challenges school administrators face under Hezbollah missile threat after Oct. 7

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Evacuated students walking down a path at their new school at the Ghetto Fighters' House in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)
Evacuated students walking down a path at their new school at the Ghetto Fighters' House in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Six months since the start of the Israel-Hamas War on October 7, school administrators in northern Israel are still scrambling to relocate to safer buildings, integrate evacuated children into new classes and even access textbooks left behind in school buildings that are now in closed military zones.

Michal Gal, the principal of Eilon Junior High School in Kibbutz Eilon, has already moved her 384 students twice since the war began. Located about 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) from the border with Lebanon, the kibbutz was evacuated with other border communities within days after the start of the war, when some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages.

Soon afterward, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group began firing rockets into northern Israel to support Hamas in Gaza. About 80,000 residents have been evacuated from 43 communities, and 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed by artillery and rocket fire.

Students from Eilon first studied in four-hour shifts each afternoon at an elementary school in the nearby Kibbutz Beit Haemek; they now study in a school building on the grounds of the Ghetto Fighters’ House, a Holocaust Museum located in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

While the storms of war rage around them, Gal said that she and her staff try to give students “a warm enclosure to protect them,” especially because as young adolescents, they “can get lost inside themselves.”

But the temporary school lacks a sense of permanence — and manpower. Out of a staff of 40, the Eilon school is missing 14 staff members, either because they’ve been evacuated to areas too far away to return to work each day or because they are on reserve duty.

“Everyone is in some state of crisis,” Gal said. She and the remaining staff members have worked hard to provide emotional support to both students and teachers as well as to create a new academic framework that addresses wartime reality.

When the school was briefly housed at the elementary school on Kibbutz Beit Haemek, volunteers from the community were enlisted to help the overwhelmed teachers. The school was also close to the Lebanese border, reverberating with sounds of artillery fire and explosions. Some people, Gal said, were so scared when they arrived at the school gate that “they were shaking.”

And since their school was in a closed military zone, it was impossible to get the schoolbooks needed by the students.

“The People of the Book were without books,” Gal said. It took several more weeks to finally access teaching materials.

Michal Gal with students, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

“We didn’t have anything to learn from,” said Noa Shemla, an eighth-grade student at the school. “We couldn’t even make copies of pages from books.”

Teachers improvised with overhead projectors, but when there was a technical problem, there was nobody on hand to fix it. Some evacuated students had moved so often that they were at a loss as to where they had left their notebooks, supplies and school bags.

Twelfth-grader Yuval Bashan was not evacuated from her home in Regba, in the Western Galilee, but her school, Sulam Tzur in Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, has been requisitioned by the military. Students now travel by bus for about two hours each day to their provisional school in Kiryat Bialik 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. One of her evacuated friends, whose family is staying in Ashdod, spends up to five hours on the road each day because she wants to finish high school with her classmates.

“It’s very hard, especially in our last year,” Bashan said. “We weren’t able to study theater, my major, until they found us a special room that’s close to a bomb shelter.”

Kindergarten is the bomb

In nearby Shavei Zion, 34 children attended kindergarten in an underground bomb shelter for the first two months of the war. According to the Home Front Command, once a warning siren is sounded, people in different communities have a certain number of seconds to get to a shelter. Shavei Zion residents have 30 seconds to find shelter, and the public shelter is not close enough to the kindergarten building.

Since there was no accessible bomb shelter — and no budget to build one in the near future — several parents initiated a fundraising campaign for a bomb shelter attached to the kindergarten.

Kindergarten teacher Carmit Almog hugging one of her students at their temporary school in Zedeka Bet El, March 2024. (Diana Bletter)

While the bomb shelter is being built, Carmit Almog, the teacher, the staff and children, now have kindergarten at Zedaka Bet El, a hotel run by a German charitable organization that offers free stays to Holocaust survivors and their families.

A tattoo on Almog’s arm reads, “Your only limit is your mind,” and she said it’s a reminder. When she conducts siren drills, she tries to make it into a game for the children, four of whom have been evacuated from other communities, including the Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe.

“We all wiggle our fingers by our ears and say, ‘Nana banana,’” Almog related, using a common Israeli kids’ nonsense phrase.

She is grateful to teach at Zedaka Bet El, a lovely spot filled with trees and flowers, but she is saddened by the fact she can’t take the children on walks the way she has done for the past nine years.

“It’s hard to teach about nature inside a building,” she said. “But we have to stay close by. We have only 30 seconds to bring 34 children to safety.”

Lessons learned from COVID crisis

According to an Education Ministry spokesperson, the ministry works in conjunction with the IDF, giving instructions to local authorities on how to prepare and operate schools during emergency situations, including scheduling “flexible learning programs in alternative protected spaces, learning in shifts, remote online learning, and outreach programs.”

The ministry also has a prepared scenario for schools around the country for “a war that will last three weeks.”

Deputy principal Leah Alon at the Regba Elementary School, March 2024. (Courtesy)

“The coronavirus actually helped prepare us for this situation,” said deputy principal Leah Alon of the elementary school in Regba, because “it gave us experience with remote learning and teaching on Zoom.”

At the school, there are now 35 evacuated children out of 530 students, but when the war first began, everything was put on hold. Gradually, the Home Front Command issued directives. Students first learned remotely, then they returned to “very short days” at school. Now, Alon said, there are shorter-than-average days at school, but “we’re trying to give the children as much of a routine as possible.”

In addition, psychologists and guidance counselors are “on hand” at the school, and there are frequent activities for children to “express their fears” about things they might have heard about the war, terrorists or the hostages who remain captive in Gaza.

The irony that the Eilon Junior High School is now being housed at the Ghetto Fighters’ House is not lost on principal Gal. She herself was evacuated from Kibbutz Goren farther north; she has already relocated two times and now must move again.

“The October 7 massacre could have happened here, in the north,” Gal said. In developing new curriculum materials, she hopes to convey the message to her students that “we are a strong people in a strong nation.”

“No matter what,” she said, “we have the inner forces to rise again.”

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