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Schools in ‘red’ zones won’t start Tuesday, cabinet rules in about-face

On eve of new academic year, ministers accept coronavirus czar’s recommendation to keep educational institutions shut in areas with high infection rates

Preparations for the new school year at Orot Etzion school in the settlement of Efrat, on August 17, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Preparations for the new school year at Orot Etzion school in the settlement of Efrat, on August 17, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

With hours left before the school year was set to begin on Tuesday morning, government ministers voted Monday night to accept the recommendation of Israel’s coronavirus czar to keep educational institutions shut in areas with high infection rates.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet voted unanimously to fully follow Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan that imposes localized closures based on morbidity rates and allows the rest of the country to remain open.

Monday’s decision was a reversal for the ministers, who on Sunday had voted in favor of the “traffic light” proposal, but excluded schools from the plan, rejecting Gamzu’s demand that institutions in high-infection localities remain closed.

The plan is meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, with “red” localities subject to the strictest restrictions, followed by “orange,” “yellow” and “green” ones, with the latter enjoying the loosest rules regarding social distancing, especially when it comes to restrictions on gatherings in outdoor and indoor spaces.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020 (Screengrab/Ynet)

Monday’s decision means schools will remain closed in Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Daliyat al-Karmel, Beitar Illit, Jat, Tira, Ein Mahil, Immanuel, Kfar Qasm, Ussefiya, Shaar Hanegev, Kafr Kanna, Rehasim, Zemer, Al Batuf, Laqiya, Beit Jann, I’billin, Maale Meron, Kafr Bara, Jaljulia, Nahal Sorek, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre and Jadeidi-Makr.

The order keeping the schools closed lasts until Thursday, when the coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet again to reassess the situation.

Earlier Monday, Gamzu reiterated his opposition to opening schools in areas with high infection rates, publicly criticizing ministers for rejecting his recommendations.

“I intend to fight this, and not to let the school year open in ‘red’ cities,” he said at his weekly briefing to the media on Israel’s battle with the pandemic.

“It’s not the right risk to take… In a red city it won’t be possible to have a school without a confirmed case [of the virus], so I’m continuing to insist on this,” he said, acknowledging the ongoing disagreement.

“It doesn’t look good that I say one thing and the education minister [Yoav Gallant, who supports opening all schools] says another, but why take the risk?” he said. “We’re in discussions to resolve this embarrassing problem.”

Gamzu said the very fact that the education system was reopening at all on September 1 while the country was experiencing some 2,000 new confirmed infections daily was a serious risk.

Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, on May 3, 2020, in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Officials have expressed some fears over the looming opening of schools on September 1, seeing it as a potential major infection vector. Israel’s swift reopening of schools in May — after nearly eradicating the disease with strict lockdowns over the preceding months — was seen as a serious factor in the marked resurgence of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking after Gamzu on Monday evening, said the decision on whether to open schools had been deliberately pushed off to the last minute “to make sure there are as few ‘red’ cities as possible at the time the decision is made.”

Shortly before the coronavirus cabinet announced its decision, the Health Ministry released its daily update, showing the total number of coronavirus cases in Israel since the pandemic began had risen to 116,596, with 1,894 new cases diagnosed since Sunday night.

The ministry also reported another 14 deaths from COVID-19, bringing the national toll to 939.

Of the 891 people currently hospitalized with the virus, there were 437 people in serious condition, with 125 on ventilators. Another 190 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

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