Teachers put off strike for 2 days, enabling school year to open on time

But union warns that if no solution is found for high-risk teaching staff, labor action will begin later in the week; former health official says operating schools is a bad idea

First-grade students and their parents in a classroom ahead of the opening of the school year at Orot Etzion School, in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
First-grade students and their parents in a classroom ahead of the opening of the school year at Orot Etzion School, in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The Israel Teachers Union will push off until later this week a looming strike that threatened to prevent the opening of the school year, giving the government a few more days to negotiate a solution for teaching staff who are at high risk due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Labor Court heard Monday.

The union told the court that it will not strike on Tuesday, the first day of school, and will engage in “intensive talks” with government officials.

The union said no solution has been found for workers deemed to be at high risk for the virus, particularly primary school teachers and 1,500 kindergarten staff.

If no compromise is reached, the strike will begin on Thursday, September 3, the union said. It is is demanding full sick pay for those unable to work due to the pandemic, whereas the treasury is proposing furloughing such staff members or allowing them to retire.

The union has suggested that instead, they should be reassigned to remotely teach high-risk children who cannot attend school or kindergarten, or doctors should issue them the certification required to use their sick days to stay home. That idea was rejected by the Education Ministry, Hebrew media reported.

People shop for school supplies in a shop in central Jerusalem, ahead of the begining of the new school year, on August 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The state has said it would agree that at-risk teachers be permitted to take unpaid leave for the first two months of the school year. During that time they would seek assessment by a physician to determine the level of risk posed to them by the virus. Those who are found to be able to work would be permitted to return.

Teachers and kindergarten staff deemed to face too high a risk from infection would be paid for the previous two months at 67.5% of their standard wage. During the following weeks negotiations would be held to agree on an early retirement plan for those teachers. The state intends to allocate some NIS 30 million ($8.9 million) to fund the plan.

The teachers union told the court that the state’s proposal was “not clear enough” and the union would therefore give officials a few more days to hold talks.

Meanwhile, the national parents committee has expressed dissatisfaction with the Education Ministry’s plan for reopening schools under a “capsule” system for more senior grades, which could see some children in school for only two days a week.

Also Monday, former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash told the Kan public broadcaster that “no normal country in the world would dare to operate the education system with an infection rate of 2,000 people per day.”

“The [political] leadership is too attentive to what the public wants and not what it needs and as a result decisions are being made that make it difficult to manage the crisis,” said Barbash, who was a leading candidate for the position of coronavirus czar, which was ultimately given to Ronni Gamzu.

Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)

The Education Ministry has faced criticism over concerns that the education system is unprepared for new restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The swift reopening of schools in May has been blamed for the resurgence of the virus, which had nearly disappeared while schools were shut and the country was under lockdown.

Classes will be held according to the Education Ministry’s “Safe Learning” plan, which was developed in response to the pandemic and will see full-sized classes for the first two grades, capsules — small groups — for grades 3 and 4, and an emphasis on distance learning from grades 5 through 12.

The legislation to grant funding to schools to deal with the pandemic did not reach a planned Knesset vote last week, after the coalition apparently failed to gather enough lawmakers to support the bill ahead of a week-long summer recess.

The vote will now be delayed until after the school year begins. The Finance Committee previously approved the legislation, which amounts to NIS 1.75 billion ($515 million) for schools.

Israel has been operating without a 2020 budget, meaning ministries must use 2019 budget numbers, which do not cover the pandemic, even as schools and other institutions grapple with the expenses of coping with the coronavirus.

Furthermore, over 50,000 Israeli schoolchildren will start the academic year without the equipment they need, and one fifth of students don’t have a computer or the internet access required for remote learning, a report said last week. The Latet organization, which provides various welfare and food aid services to those in need, said 53,000 children were lacking the basic supplies needed to start the school year, with the situation exacerbated by the need for online learning.

There had been 115,057 coronavirus cases diagnosed in Israel according to Health Ministry figures released Monday morning. The death toll stood at 922, and there were 20,334 active patients. On Sunday, 1,102 new cases were diagnosed, though rates tend to be lower over weekends.

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