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Schools to reopen Monday, Tuesday in cities that chose to wait over virus fears

Among municipalities to unlock classrooms are Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba; first day back sees 60% of eligible pupils showing up for studies

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

After a chaotic partial restart Sunday of the education system from a total shutdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, dozens of municipalities that had refused the call to open their schools for some grades agreed to comply over the coming two days.

Elementary schools had been given the green light to bring back students in first through third grades, as Israel has looked to gradually transition back into a more normal routine with the virus seemingly under control.

Yet, some 35 cities and local authorities opted to delay a return to classrooms due to their dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the matter, which has seen unclear rules and unanswered questions about technical aspects of the school openings.

Though the first day back was optional, the Education Ministry said that municipalities must reopen schools by Tuesday. While some local authorities said they would resume studies on Monday or Tuesday, others made no such promises.

Dozens of those that held back, among them Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Rosh Ha’Ayin, Misgav and Emek Hefer, said that they will open their schools on Monday, a day late.

Haifa, Ramat Hasharon, and Hadera are to open schools on Tuesday.

Ramat Gan, Beersheba, Safed and Carmiel were expected to open schools by no later than next week, Channel 12 news reported.

A school staff member waits for students to provide them protective face masks and ask them to sign a health form while arriving at school, as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, May 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Of the 300,000 pupils who were supposed to go back Sunday, 180,000 — about 60 percent, actually turned up at some 1,500 schools, according to the Education Ministry. Many parents chose to keep their children at home, rather than risk infection by sending them back, and some school bus services are still not working, both factors that reduced the numbers.

At schools, pupils were divided into groups, each of which, under Education Ministry guidelines, was to remain together for all classes and breaks. Each group was to have dedicated toilets as well.

Much of the first days back was devoted to going over hygiene rules and social distancing.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz told Channel 12 in an interview that, despite the difficulties and low numbers, there was cause for celebration.

“We are slowly getting back to normal,” he said.

Peretz stressed that although elementary schools reopened, participation was voluntary for both municipalities and parents alike on Sunday.

While daycare, preschools, and kindergartens are still shuttered, Peretz said further information from research on infection rates among young children will be made available on Tuesday, and that will influence a final decision on whether or not those institutions will open at the beginning of next week .

Over the course of May, studies will gradually resume for all grades, Peretz said, but schools will likely have to rotate attendance, as they do not have enough classroom space for all students to maintain social distancing at the same time.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

No further steps toward restoring the education system will be taken for at least two weeks, giving authorities time to assess any fallout from the measures taken so far, he explained.

Many local leaders have criticized the last-minute decision to open schools, which was only made Friday, saying it did not allow them to safely reopen in time, while lambasting the lack of clear guidelines even on Saturday night.

Guidelines from the Education and Health ministries that were slated to be published late Saturday were still missing by 7 a.m. Sunday, roughly an hour before the first bell rang, punctuating a process that has been beset by allegations of chaotic and rushed decision-making.

Though kindergartens too had been set to open on Sunday, ministers decided on Friday to delay the move, after the Health Ministry raised concerns about the ability of young kids to maintain necessary hygiene and social distancing standards. An Israeli study underpinning the decision found that though younger children were less likely than adults to contract the virus or pass it along, there was still a possibility they could infect others.

Israel’s schools were among the first institutions to shut down in mid-March, a move that was quickly followed by stricter measures that brought the economy to a virtual standstill and forced many to remain at home as the country sought to prevent a large outbreak of COVID-19.

In recent weeks, Israel’s government has approved rollbacks of some restrictions, opening many stores and allowing people to gather for prayer or venture from home for exercise. The moves have come as the number of new daily infections have dwindled, as have the number of serious cases. As of Sunday, 16,193 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel and 231 have died. Some 9,600, more than half of those diagnosed, have recovered.

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