Ministers in the coronavirus cabinet approved a plan for students to return to elementary schools on Sunday, with all children in first through fourth grades attending for only four days a week.
Leaks from the meeting showed concern that socioeconomic inequality could potentially increase with students in better-off areas receiving extra schooling as part of the plan.
According to the approved plan, children in grades 1-4 will study in school for at least four days a week, in groups of around 18 students.
However, several local authorities have said they will allocate funds to open schools for five days a week.
“There is no solution for non-rich authorities,” complained Labor’s Economy Minister Amir Peretz, according to leaks from the meeting. Peretz was the sole vote against the plan.
The now-approved outline was presented in response to blistering criticism from all corners regarding the government’s earlier plans to have students in first and second grades attend for only half a week, so that there would be enough space and manpower to teach them in isolated capsules.
Students in third and fourth grade, who had been slated to go for five days a week, will now attend for one day less.
Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.
Although the first and second grades will learn in classes of around 18 students, the separate pods will be mixed back together during after-school care programs.
“This is a first step on the challenging path to reaching the desired [return to] routine in the education system,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement.
Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen on October 18.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the plan was only temporary and that the situation in Israel should not be compared to European countries, many of which have left schools open despite moving toward national lockdowns.
“The fact that in Europe they left education [system] open is not a positive point for them. It’s a loss of control. They say they are praying for a miracle. We do not need more miracles. There is a limit to what God will give to the people of Israel,” Netanyahu reportedly said.
Gallant reportedly told ministers that the new plan was formulated out of necessity after the Treasury said there was no extra money for first and second graders to learn in pods, after funds had been allocated for third and fourth graders.
“There is no additional budget and I have to formulate an outline under these guidelines,” he said.
Gallant reportedly said that although all children should wear masks in the classrooms, it was expected there would be difficulty enforcing the rule with younger children.
Despite the approved plan, the head of the Israel Teachers Union, Yaffa Ben-David, said there was going to be a “huge mess” on Sunday morning.
“We are all confused and frustrated. We go to bed with one plan and wake up to another,” Ben-David told the Ynet news site Thursday.
Ministers were also set to discuss whether to allow stores to reopen, with the decision likely to also affect synagogues.
Finance Minister Israel Katz is pushing for all stores to be allowed to reopen next week, but Health Minister Yuli Edelstein opposes doing so at this stage.
Netanyahu addressed criticism of the plan to allow beauty salons and hairdressers to restart operations on Sunday, under restrictions, while children in fifth grade upwards are continuing to distance learn.
“They ask if we’ll allow beauticians to work but not education [for grades 5-12]. The answer is ‘yes.’ It is minimal compared to two million students, it is not just a value scale but a statistical scale,” Netanyahu reportedly said.
Netanyahu also told ministers that Israelis should expect to be wearing masks for the next year, and that therefore there should be investment in that technology.
“A user-friendly mask must be found. It is important to invest money here in designing easy-to-wear masks,” Netanyahu reportedly said.
Additionally, outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu told ministers that the closure on the northern Druze town of Majdal Shams should be extended as infection rates had not dropped sufficiently. Furthermore, Gamzu proposed that a closure be imposed on the northern locality of Bu’eine Nujeidat, which has also seen a rise in cases.
According to data released by the Health Ministry on Thursday, Majdal Shams and Bu’eine Nujeidat have the highest per capita rates of active cases.