Teachers union calls strike over nixed kids’ quarantine; government fights back

Report indicates labor chief called action at behest of top health official; government to ask court for emergency injunction against call for teachers to stay home

Secretary-general of the Israel Teachers' Union Yaffa Ben-David speaks during a protest event in Tel Aviv on August 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Secretary-general of the Israel Teachers' Union Yaffa Ben-David speaks during a protest event in Tel Aviv on August 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Government officials were scrambling Wednesday night to block plans by teachers to strike in protest of new rules exempting schoolkids from quarantine starting Thursday, leaving parents uncertain as to whether there would be school the next day.

Israel Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben David called on teachers Wednesday evening to not show up to work the next morning in protest of the new rules, which she wrote will put the health of faculty at risk by allowing children exposed to coronavirus carriers to continue going to school.

Ben David’s announcement came shortly after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz decided to push ahead with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton’s plans for the new quarantine rules, despite reported calls by health officials to delay it until more information about pediatric hospitalizations related to the virus could be gathered.

Officials were planning on filing court petitions for an emergency injunction against the wildcat strike, Shasha-Biton said.

According to reports, Ben David had been pressured to oppose the plan by Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public health. In recent days, health officials had reversed their initial support for the program, pointing to signs from abroad that the fast-moving Omicron may be putting more kids in the hospitals, as well as worries over PIMS, a rare but serious disease that affects kids weeks after they recover.

The Health Ministry denied that Alroy-Preis had pushed Ben David to call the strike, but confirmed that the two had spoken about the plan to scrap quarantines earlier in the day.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton visits students at the Ramon School in Modi’in, on October 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Shasha-Biton, who has clashed with Alroy-Preis in the past and called for her firing, lashed out at Ben David for what she called “strong-armed political moves on the backs of Israel’s children.”

The head of the national parent-teacher association also spoke out against the teachers union plans to strike.

“In Israel, soldiers don’t flee battle, in Israel doctors don’t abandon their hospital shifts. In Israel, teachers don’t leave their kids,” Merom Shiff wrote on Facebook, in an open letter to Ben David. “Your wars, your power games, ego trips and hand-wringing are not to be done at the expense of kids who did nothing and whose most terrible sin is their desire to learn after two horrible years.”

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, addresses a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on November 28, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Ben David told Channel 12 news that education officials were not aware of what was happening inside schools, with 40 percent of teaching staff already absent due to quarantine requirements or illness, which would only be exacerbated by the new plan.

“Kids will come to school on Thursday and there will be a huge mess because there’s not enough staff,” she said.

The Education Ministry said it would allow schools an extra 60 hours of substitute teacher hours to make sure schools keep running, at a cost of NIS 40 million ($12.6 million), Army Radio reported late Wednesday.

Under the plan, all students both vaccinated and unvaccinated, will need to take two home antigen tests a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays, and report negative results to an Education Ministry portal.

A Magen David worker administers a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a drive-through complex in Jerusalem, on January 17, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Children who test positive for COVID-19 at home will need to take an official antigen test at a state facility and isolate for five days if that too shows a positive result.

The announcement left unclear whether there would be any penalty for not testing among vaccinated students, as the quarantine requirement only falls on those who do not test and are not vaccinated.

Those in close contact are encouraged, but not required, to test daily for five days.

Schools in many locations were already slated to be closed Thursday due to a winter storm that brought heavy snow to Jerusalem, northern Israel and parts of the West Bank.

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