Uncertainty and confusion as 250,000 ultra-Orthodox kids return to school

Principals say they don’t know if students are meant to be tested for COVID under pilot program; Education Ministry director: Vaccinations OK in schools but not during school hours

Ultra-orthodox Jewish children at a school founded by Rabbi Shmuel Stern in Jerusalem on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-orthodox Jewish children at a school founded by Rabbi Shmuel Stern in Jerusalem on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over 250,000 Israeli children went back to school Monday as the ultra-Orthodox school system returned from its summer break amid uncertainty and confusion over new COVID testing requirements for students.

While most Israeli schools open their year on September 1, educational institutions in the Haredi sector usually begin studies from the start of the Jewish month of Elul, a month before the High Holidays commence.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave his approval to a plan prepared by the ministries of education, health and defense and the Prime Minister’s Office for the full reopening of the school year next month in the shadow of the latest coronavirus outbreak.

According to the plan, all 1.6 million kids in kindergarten and grades 1-6 will undergo a serology test to check if they have COVID-19 antibodies.

Additionally, the families of 1.9 million children in kindergartens and grades 1-9 will receive a rapid COVID-19 home test kit within 48 hours of the start of the school year and will be asked to test their children prior to their coming to class.

A pilot program of the testing was set to begin in several Haredi cities Monday before being rolled out to the rest of the population before September 1.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with officials at his office in Jerusalem to discuss plans for reopening of schools, July 25, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

But while the cities of Elad, Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, and Beit Shemesh were slated to take part in the pilot, several school principals from those municipalities told the Kan public broadcaster that they had not been informed of testing requirements for their students.

“I read about it in the press. I did not receive any instruction beyond that. No one spoke to us,” Yaron Fuchs, the principal of the Darchei Noam school in Beit Shemesh, told the network.

And just hours before classes were to resume, some were unsure if their schools would open amid confusion blamed on the government plan, while others said it was unclear if students were required to wear masks in classrooms.

“There is no procedure of sitting in a classroom with masks, so it will be enforced by a measure of goodwill. Those who do not want to — we will not be able to compel it,” Fuchs said.

In fact, masks have been required in all indoor spaces since June when the mandate was reimposed.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has courted controversy by calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.” Still, the director-general of her ministry, Yigal Slovik, said Monday that inoculations could be done in school though not during school hours.

“We are in favor of vaccines and we will allow vaccines within schools; we have no problem with that,” Slovik told Radio 103. “But it is not right to engage with vaccinations during school hours as students return [to the classroom] after a really difficult year emotionally, socially and pedagogically.

“Anyone who requests the infrastructure of the schools to allow people to be vaccinated, will be permitted. But the role of school principals and teachers is to engage in education and not vaccines,” Slovik said.

On Sunday, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said that it was “impossible to say for sure” if the school year would open as planned on September 1, suggesting that a lockdown could be implemented over the High Holidays, which run over much of the month of September.

But speaking to Kan on Monday morning, Ran Balicer, chairman of the national expert panel on COVID-19, said that based on current data, “I see no reason not to open the school year. I do not think we will learn anything new during this month. We want to do everything to avoid the potential damage of disrupting the school routine.”

Professor Ran Balicer, head of innovation at Clalit, Israel’s biggest health services provider, in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2020 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Starting Sunday, gatherings of any size, indoors and out, are limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus, or present a negative COVID test. While the plan originally included synagogues and other houses of worship, these were eventually exempted in prayer services with fewer than 50 participants.

As of Monday morning, there were 31,393 active COVID cases in Israel, with 618 people hospitalized, 360 in serious condition and 57 on ventilators.

An additional 3,372 people were diagnosed with the virus Saturday at a positive test rate of 3.87 percent, bringing the total number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic to 902,148.

Israel’s virus death toll is now at 6,542, with seven fatalities recorded on Sunday.

The Health Ministry said that out of Israel’s population of some 9.3 million, over 5.8 million have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly 5.4 million have gotten two and 487,959 have been administered a third booster shot.

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