Some Israeli kids head back to school amid confusion and uncertainty

Preschools, grades 1-4, 11-12 resume in low to medium infection zones after over a month of lockdown, some schools to delay reopening citing lack of time to prepare

Vered Brosh, the school principal, arranges the class for reopening at "Israeli school Beit Hakerem" in Jerusalem on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Vered Brosh, the school principal, arranges the class for reopening at "Israeli school Beit Hakerem" in Jerusalem on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several hundred thousand Israeli children went back to school Thursday for the first time in over a month. But just hours before classes were to resume, many were unsure if their schools would open amid confusion blamed on a last-minute, overly complicated plan adopted by the government.

The coronavirus cabinet approved a plan to reopen parts of the education system only on Tuesday evening, sending some kids back to preschools and schools in areas with low to medium coronavirus infection levels.

Under the Health Ministry proposal, kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 will open in cities designated as “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates.

Some medium-to-high infection cities, flagged as “orange,” will also see these grades opened, depending on various statistics and provided that at least 70 percent of residents aged 50 and up are vaccinated. Most “orange” cities don’t meet the criteria. Those that do include Kiryat Motzkin, Tirat Carmel, Kfar Yona, Karmiel, Mevaseret Zion, Ness Ziona, Savyon, Ramat Gan, Ramat Yishai and Raanana.

Overall, some 20 percent of Israel’s students were returning to class, according to Hebrew media reports.

Channel 13 reported that as of Wednesday night dozens of cities were still uncertain of their status, while others were delaying opening until Sunday, citing the short time given to them to prepare.

“It’s a huge muddle, coming out with the plan at the eleventh hour,” Smadar Kislevski, a school principal in Raanana, told Channel 13.

“They did not give any indication or warning of what they planned. We did not know if they would open or not,” said Reut Yitzhak, a mother of two from Ness Ziona. “We are still not sure if they will open, and the parents understand this.”

Channel 13 said there were also concerns about teachers who live in red areas traveling to teach in green areas, possibly reintroducing infections.

Schools have been closed around the country for over a month under lockdown rules.

Hundreds of people gathered in Tel Aviv on Wednesday to protest government decisions to keep schools in their areas closed.

Israelis parents and school teachers protest against the government’s reopening plan of the education system in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Gallant claimed Monday that schools would not be a source of new outbreaks and that children were being infected at home.

But at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry officials issued dire warnings of the potentially devastating consequences of reopening schools with coronavirus morbidity remaining high, and variants of the virus hitting children harder than previous strains.

Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox party leaders were pressuring Netanyahu to resume studies in the worst-hit “red” areas as well, with a special plan enabling studies outdoors or with a lower-than-normal number of students per class, according to the Walla news website.

Shas chief Aryeh Deri and United Torah Judaism leaders Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman were said to be furious over the plan to only reopen schools in lower infection zones, as most predominantly ultra-Orthodox areas are classified as “red.” Many Haredi education institutions have continued to operate illegally, and police have been accused of being reluctant to enforce closures.

Leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky warned that all ultra-Orthodox schools would reopen unless the government approved a framework for reopening schools in high-infection areas, Channel 12 reported.

Ultra-Orthodox men hold a rally against the coronavirus restriction, in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, February 9, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Kanievsky accused the government Tuesday of abandoning the education of the country’s children during the pandemic, associates told Hebrew media outlets.

Kanievsky, widely acknowledged as the preeminent living Ashkenazi Haredi spiritual leader, said that “the education of Israel’s children is at the very bottom of the government’s concerns. Every other issue is given priority over education, which is the lifeblood of the nation.”

He added that “millions of Israeli children have been at home for a year, in both spiritual and mental danger, and an immediate solution must be found to bring them back to school as quickly as possible while maintaining health rules.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attends a campaign event for the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party in the northern city of Safed, on February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Kanievsky has faced intense criticism for his handling of the pandemic and for rulings given to his followers. He has instructed schools to open in defiance of government decisions on several occasions, leading hundreds of institutions to illicitly open their doors throughout the pandemic.

Kanievsky’s instructions, rather than government orders, are the final word for many in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Meanwhile, police warned Wednesday they would heavily enforce coronavirus restrictions as dozens of businesses in at least three shopping malls announced plans to open in defiance of health rules.

Three malls were expected to open on Thursday, in open rebellion against coronavirus lockdown regulations that have shuttered most businesses. The malls that have decided to open are in Bat Yam, Karmiel and Petah Tikva. The decision was announced by a forum that includes mall owners, chain stores, small businesses and executives from the restaurant, tourism, hotel and entertainment industries.

Israel’s third nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 was slightly eased on Sunday at 7 a.m., after over a month, as the country continued to grapple with thousands of daily new cases.

Restrictions on travel inside the country and on businesses that do not serve the public were removed. In addition, businesses with individual interactions, like hairdressers and cosmeticians, were allowed to open, among other steps. But many businesses and shops remained shuttered, as did schools and preschools.

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