Some 80 percent of elementary schools reopened for many of their students on Sunday for the first time in seven weeks following an unprecedented shutdown, though confusion about guidelines for reopening schools and fears of a fresh outbreak of the novel coronavirus meant that many would be spending another day at home.
About 60% of the eligible schoolchildren, reportedly some 180,000, went to school Sunday, with many parents and municipalities complaining of unclear government guidelines in recent days.
Elementary schools were given the green light Friday to bring back students in first through third grades, as Israel has looked to gradually transition back into a more normal routine with the deadly virus seemingly under control.
Much of the first days back will be devoted to going over hygiene rules and social distancing, according to Hebrew media reports.
Despite the go-ahead, numerous cities and local authorities said they would delay a return to classrooms amid growing dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the matter, with unclear rules in place and unanswered questions about technical aspects of the school openings.
Among towns saying they would not open schools Sunday were Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa, Beersheba, Ramat Hasharon, Bnei Brak, parts of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, Rehovot, Acre, Ashkelon, Safed, Karmiel, Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Gat.
The Education Ministry has said municipalities must reopen schools by Tuesday. While some local authorities said they would resume studies on Monday or Tuesday, others made no such promises.
And following a Saturday night meeting, Arab local council leaders defied the ministry, saying the entire Arab community would not reopen schools this week at all. They said infections in the Arab community were still higher than in Jewish towns, and cited logistical difficulties in properly preparing to reopen under distancing limitations.
Though kindergartens too had been set to open on Sunday, ministers made a last-minute decision 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 morning, Israel had 16,185 confirmed infections and 229 deaths from the disease.
Sunday saw some 493,000 elementary school students called to return to their studies in five-hour schooldays, five days a week, with up to 17 children in a classroom; some 200,000 11th and 12th graders were also called to return to classes, as well as special education classes and at-risk student programs. In practice, high schools mostly failed to open and around a third of the elementary school students showed up on Sunday.
In ultra-Orthodox schools, students in grades 7-12 were all told to return to class.
The remainder of students are expected to go back to school by June 1, and are to continue with remote learning in the meantime.
Meanwhile, preschools, daycares and kindergartens were only expected to reopen on May 10 after an assessment of the situation.
However, guidelines from the Education and Health Ministry that were slated to be published late Saturday were still missing by 7 a.m. Sunday, roughly an hour before the first bell rings, punctuating a process that has been beset by allegations of chaotic and rushed decision-making.
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.
Channel 12 news reported that thousands of parents throughout the country have signed petitions vowing not to send their kids back to class until they are satisfied that there are clear, enforceable guidelines to keep their children safe.
Among the first mayors to respond to the government decision on schools Friday was Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who said: “Our schools and kindergartens are clean and the teams are ready, but we will not go by rules set by people who do not act responsibly.”
The Education Ministry has pointed to the opening of special education classes for some 60,000 students late last month as a success, though the small class sizes and relatively few students likely did not provide the same challenges as opening whole schools will.