Nearly 2.5 million schoolchildren in Israel kicked off the academic year on Tuesday amid fears educational institutions could act as potential major infection vectors.
Tens of thousands of pupils across the country, however, were to stay home after a last-minute decision to keep institutions shuttered in areas with high rates of virus transmission, including 332 schools and 716 preschools and kindergartens.
But in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit near Jerusalem, one of the towns declared “red zones,” schools opened despite the ministerial decision.
While the Beitar Illit municipality denied that schools were operating, numerous parents who spoke to Hebrew-language media outlets said that they had been told that schools would be operating as usual.
Families at one of the city’s largest schools told the Haaretz daily they received a message on Tuesday morning, saying: “Dear parents and students, According to the municipality’s decision, the classes will be held today as usual at 9 am.”
Parents told the paper they sent their kids to school only to receive a message later saying they needed to come and pick them up.
Elsewhere, by Tuesday afternoon two schools had already been shut down after teachers there tested positive for the coronavirus — one in Jerusalem and the second in the Golan Heights. According to reports, the schools were forced to close because the educators had been in contact with other staff members prior to being tested.
Hours before the school year was set to begin on Tuesday morning, cabinet ministers voted to accept the recommendation of Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, to keep educational institutions shut in areas with high infection rates.
Monday’s decision was a reversal for the ministers, who on Sunday had voted in favor of the “traffic light” proposal which had excluded schools from the plan to impose localized closures on towns based on morbidity rates and allow the rest of the country to remain open.
The plan is meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, with “red” localities subject to the strictest limitations, 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.
Monday’s decision meant schools were to remain closed in Beitar Illit, along with Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Daliyat al-Karmel, 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.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Tuesday that areas where educational institutions were closed should not view the order as a punishment.
“My heart goes out to the teachers and students, but this is not a punishment — this is a health decision,” Edelstein said, adding that the list of localities deemed to be high-risk had changed in the past few days and was “dynamic.”
Not all municipalities expressed anger at the decision. The mayor of the northern town of Umm al-Fahm told Channel 12 news that though he had previously worked as a school principal and understood the significance of the first day of the academic year, he supported the closure because infection rates were not under control in the city.
“The feeling in the locality is not good, a lot of parents send me messages, they are really angry,” said Samir Mahamid. “But I am actually backing the decision. I have explicitly said that I am in favor of closing the schools because, unfortunately, the issue of isolation is very bad, people do not keep to it. My fear is that children from families with the coronavirus will come to schools.”
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 at that time.
Classes will be held according to the Education Ministry’s “Safe Learning” plan, which was developed in response to the pandemic and will see full-sized classes for the first two grades, capsules — small groups — for grades 3 and 4, and an emphasis on distance learning for grades 5 through 12. Kindergartens will operate as usual, with classes at regular size.
The Health Ministry on Tuesday said the total number of coronavirus cases in Israel since the pandemic began had risen to 117,241, with 2,180 new cases diagnosed throughout the previous day.
The death toll stood at 946.
Of the 878 people currently hospitalized with the virus, there were 438 people in serious condition, with 119 on ventilators. Another 188 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.