Israel’s school year will open on September 1, the country’s top education and health officials told lawmakers on Monday.
The decision was made Sunday night by Education Minister Yoav Gallant, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu.
Classes will be held according to the Education Ministry’s “Safe Learning” plan, which was developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and will see smaller class sizes in the younger grades and an emphasis on distance learning from grades 5 through 12.
Officials are looking into the possibility of delaying the openings of high schools in cities with high infection rates until October, after the Jewish holidays, the Education Ministry said. That decision would affect 10th-12th graders.
Laying out the plan to the Knesset State Control Committee Monday, Gallant said the maximum class size will be 18 students, with exceptions allowing for as many as 22.
“In grades 3 and 4 classes will be divided, and new teachers were hired for that purpose. They will learn in class [in person], because they can’t learn without supervision,” he said.
He said students in 5th to 12th grades would learn at least two days in school, but use distance learning the rest of the time.
Special education won’t be curtailed, Gallant promised. During last school year, special education programs, which usually have smaller class sizes, were the first to return after schools shut down in March due to the pandemic.
The new plan will add some NIS 4.2 billion ($1.24 billion) to the education budget annually, a roughly 7 percent increase from the ministry’s NIS 60 billion ($18 billion) annual budget.
Gallant did not say where the extra billions will come from. Israel has been operating without a 2020 budget, meaning ministries must use figures agreed to for the 2019 budget.
“This is the track that will take us forward from now, unless a vaccine is found or the opposite, we collapse into a serious outbreak and everything closes, at which point the education system will in any case close as well,” Gallant told the lawmakers.
“But as long as things are working and there’s no closure, the education system will remain open.”
The Education Ministry has faced criticism over concerns that the education system was unprepared for the new restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The swift reopening of school in May has been blamed for the speedy resurgence of the virus, which had nearly disappeared while schools were shut.
At a Monday meeting of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, which oversees the country’s handling of the virus outbreak, chair MK Yifat Shasha-Biton told a senior Health Ministry official that the ministry was “driving the system crazy” with the complex system of age-dependent restrictions it was imposing on schools in the new school year.
The Health Ministry announced on Monday morning that the national death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reached 839.
The total number of coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic stands at 103,274, a rise of 962 since midnight.
Lawmakers are currently deadlocked over possible new restrictions ahead of the upcoming High Holidays.