With capsules, masks and no guarantees, schools give lesson in acting on the fly

It’s a year of more informal education in the Israeli school system, with classes taught by teachers and tour guides at museums, parks and community centers

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

First grade students arrive to their first day of school at Jerusalem's Tali Geulim school on September 1, 2020 (Courtesy Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash 90)
First grade students arrive to their first day of school at Jerusalem's Tali Geulim school on September 1, 2020 (Courtesy Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash 90)

On Tuesday afternoon, September 1, the school bells rang at the Zalman Aran Elementary School in Jerusalem, and Erika Dahan picked up her fourth grader, Shaked, who still had his mask on at the end of the first day of school.

“Nearly everybody was wearing their masks,” said Dahan, reflecting on the scene in the school yard. “Some had them shoved down under their noses. But that’s kind of what I expected.”

This September, getting ready for school meant new notebooks and pencil cases, along with masks, class capsules and a signed health declaration form, sent by parents every single morning.

But as with many things in this era of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is entirely straightforward. Kids don’t always wear their masks correctly, they may only be in school two or three days a week and they may not end up in the same capsule as their best friend, either.

Elementary school students on September 1, 2020, their first day back at Tel Aviv’s Gabrieli school (Courtesy Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Dahan, who already experienced a school-wide quarantine when seven students at her son’s school were found infected with the coronavirus in May, was elated that her 9-year-old will be in school five hours a day, six days a week, in line with national guidelines set by the Education Ministry, for now.

“It’s amazing, but I keep saying in the parents’ WhatsApp group to be aware that this could change,” said Dahan, who has a masters in education. “These things are going to happen.”

For now, most Israeli schools are open for business, and many principals have spent much of the summer getting ready for a most unusual school year.

“Capsules” are the rule, with the Education Ministry setting guidelines for class capsules of up to 18 students, creating far smaller class groupings than Israel’s usual classrooms filled with 30 to 40 students.

All the extra capsules, however, created difficulties for some schools that needed additional staff to teach the extra classes and the space to accommodate them.

A socially distanced classroom on September 1, 2020 in Efrat (Courtesy Gershon Elinson/Flash 90)

And so, schools found creative solutions. There are out-of-work tour guides and performers filling in as educational support workers, some offering informal educational tours of local neighborhoods or museums.

As for space, the Jerusalem municipality announced that classes can meet at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, the Gazelle Valley urban nature zone, the Israel Museum and community centers.

In Tel Aviv, the city prepared for the return  of almost 75,000 pupils to school with additional spaces secured at the Cameri Theater, Charles Bronfman Auditorium (Heichal HaTarbut), the Israel Music Conservatory and Tel Aviv University. With warm weather usually extending into November, classes will also be taught in the fresh air, at parks and in renovated school yards.

At the Hand in Hand school in Haifa, part of the network of bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools, each class already has two teachers — a Hebrew-speaking one and an Arabic-speaking one — meaning that there was no need to find extra teachers for extra capsules.

There was never the same level of panic as in other schools, said Rebecca Sullum, a parent of a fourth grader and twin preschoolers, and the deputy director of the organization’s community department.

There have been parents who are more concerned than others with coronavirus guidelines, including a group of parents who are members of the Baha’i religion, who pulled their children out of the school in March and haven’t returned since, said Sullum.

But the school has functioned smoothly since the start of the pandemic, and continues to support its staff and students.

“We didn’t have to start hiring all these new people and we’re already part of this community where it always takes learning, creativity and a willingness to be together,” said Sullum. “That may be why coronavirus feels less scary, we think things are different all the time.”

Israeli elementary school students wearing protective face masks at school in Tel Aviv (Courtesy Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

Beit Hinuch Eitan, an elementary school in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, offers an English immersion program with two homeroom teachers in every class, one teaching certain subjects in English, and the other working only in Hebrew.

“Other schools used the science teacher or gym teacher as extra staff, I had my English teachers,” said Varda Adler, the principal of Eitan.

Adler also took advantage of the extra staff hours offered by the Ministry of Education to hire an out-of-work tour guide who will be giving weekly educational tours for the students in fifth and sixth grades.

“I thought, ‘Wow, how can I use her experience and expand my options,'” said Adler, who worked with the tour guide and an educational advisor through the municipality’s education department.

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Adler.

The coronavirus era is not all about pedagogical solutions, complained one Eitan parent, the father of a first grader, who pointed out that drop-off and pickup were a total mess, a disaster in social distancing.

“Pickup was a zoo,” he said. “It reminded me of nature programs about wildebeest and their panic at the river.”

The school may have spent weeks thinking about capsules and teachers and schedules, but there was no clear plan for dropping off and picking up kids, said the first grader’s father.

Each parent’s reaction to this year’s school reality appears to depend on their own expectations.

Sophie Blackston Deitcher, a mother of three daughters, including one ninth grader at a local high school and twin fifth graders at Keshet, a Jerusalem school that combines religious and secular students, laughed about the expected chaos in her daughters’ classrooms.

One teacher walked into her daughter’s class, asking if she was supposed to be there, while her sister waited 25 minutes for the teacher to show up.

“One grade is all of a sudden four classes,” said Blackston Deitcher, whose daughters will be spending Thursdays at the local nature museum, with three other days at school. “The positive outcome is that they’re learning in smaller groups.”

When Sarah Kaye, a mother of four and technical writer from Netanya who moderates a Facebook group called Working Parents in Israel, started a thread about the first day of school, she found it was still gathering responses two days later.

On the first day of school, her 12th grader was at school, the sixth grader was still sleeping at 9 a.m., and the first grader was in school until five p.m. The 21-year-old was out of the house as well, said Kaye, who has been working at home since March.

While she readily wears masks and practices social distancing, even at her recent 50th birthday party held in her backyard, Kaye doesn’t worry too much about the coronavirus.

A closed school in Tiberias, after the cabinet voted not to open schools in hot zones rife with coronavirus cases (Courtesy David Cohen/Flash 90)

“We don’t buy into the whole hysteria,” said Kaye, adding that her next-door neighbor, a cancer patient, got infected with Covid-19, along with her family and all recuperated quickly. “It’s been months and months and months and I’m not that interested anymore. I just need to know that my youngest is in school until five p.m. so I can work.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Nadav, a single mother of a 13-year-old and 15-year-old who study at two different high schools in Tel Aviv, was planning on pulling her boys out of school after hearing about the school’s weak coronavirus measures on Tuesday.

Nadav underwent surgery in February, and is currently immunocompromised.

“I can’t afford to get sick,” she said.

While she sent her sons back to school in May when Israeli schools reopened, she pulled them out after a week or two, when outbreaks were reported at various high schools.

“I’ve been worried all summer,” said Nadav. “I’m angry at the dysfunctional government, at the lack of budget, at the conflicting instructions from the health ministry. Where is the instructional manual for schools?”

Nadav sent her sons to school on Tuesday, telling them to look out for open windows, masks and class capsules.

Her 13-year-old came home reporting 27 kids in the class, closed windows and the air conditioning turned on full blast.

“I said, ‘you’re not going back,'” said Nadav, who called the local truancy officer before school began, to get a better sense of the coronavirus guidelines.

“He told me that school isn’t any different from the mall or the beach,'” said Nadav, who told him her son hasn’t been to the mall and if classes were being held at the beach, she would happily send him.

Nadav is now considering having her older son earn his GED and will be sending both of her sons each week to their grandfather, who is rebuilding his house after a serious fire destroyed many homes in his community.

“Let them learn real skills,” she said. “Their time won’t be wasted.”

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