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Under fire for back-to-school plan, education chief pushes 4-day week instead

Ministry proposal will shave a day off school for students in third and fourth grade, but solve problems surrounding opening for younger grades

Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)
Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

With just days remaining until students are set to go back to class, the Education Ministry revised its much-criticized program to reopen elementary schools, introducing a plan by which all children in first to fourth grades will attend school for four days a week.

The move, announced by Education Minister Yoav Gallant, came in response to blistering criticism from all corners regarding the government’s earlier plans to have students in first and second grades attend for only half a week, so that there would be enough space to place them in isolated capsules.

Under the new plan, students in grades 1-2 will go to school four days a week, up from three under the initial proposal. Grades 3-4 will also attend classes four days a week, down from five. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.

The Education Ministry said that schools with sufficient resources to do so can open for five days a week, but aren’t required to.

The plan would initially be in effect for two weeks, the ministry said.

The new Education Ministry proposal would need the authorization of the coronavirus cabinet before taking effect.

Schools have been closed since September 18, when the nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen on October 18.

The planned opening of elementary schools on Sunday, however, has been heavily overshadowed by a dispute between the Education and Health ministries over capsules for first and second grade students.

The Education Ministry said a miscommunication issue led it to not plan for splitting first and second grade classes into smaller pods, which is a Health Ministry demand for all grades. While capsules were already planned for third and fourth grades, the ministry said it did not have funds, space or time to plan for the changes to first and second grade, so ministers approved having them only learn for half a week.

However, parents and others have pushed for more days of instruction, noting the importance of in-person learning and the fact that some adults will need to stay home to watch the kids and not be able to return to work.

Several local authorities have announced plans to open for five days a week in any case, though officials have expressed worries that the extra schooling will only be offered to students in better-off cities that have the funds for the endeavor, potentially ratcheting up socioeconomic inequality.

An empty classroom at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Wednesday, the head of the Israel Teacher’s Union, Yaffa Ben-David, said teachers would only follow Education Ministry instructions and not those of local officials. A day earlier she sent a letter to principals telling them not to open until the ministry provides clear instructions for how classes will be held, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

“Until the Education Ministry publishes an outline with clear guidelines, the principals will not prepare outlines or act according to outlines of the local authority,” she wrote in a letter to the principals. “As we know, our employer is the Education Ministry and not the [local] authorities.”

The reopening of the school system on September 1 in the wake of an earlier national lockdown has been partially blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.

Since the beginning of the virus outbreak, 312,024 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus. There have been 2,483 deaths.

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