'The education system is the solution, not the problem'

With tests and masks, 2.5 million Israeli kids return to school amid COVID surge

Officials acknowledge reopening schools could see a further surge in already record virus numbers, but country determined to keep education system open; 250,000 will miss first day

Israeli children going into 1st grade, on their first day of the new academic year, at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli children going into 1st grade, on their first day of the new academic year, at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Almost 2.5 million Israeli students from kindergarten to 12th grade started the school year on Wednesday despite record virus numbers and with officials acknowledging the return to classes could spark a further rise in infections.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said the priority was to keep the economy open and get kids back to school, adding that he hoped a raft of new measures put in place would reduce the risks.

“I don’t think it is a gamble,” Ash told Channel 12 news on Tuesday evening. “I think we are making an educated decision in accordance with government policy. We want to keep the economy open and the education system open.”

However, he conceded that the reopening would likely cause a temporary spike in numbers of new COVID cases.

“There will be a rise with the opening on schools, but I hope we will see a reversal of the trend in the next week or so,” he said, pointing to the rapid testing kits handed out to parents and the policy of limiting in-class learning in high infection areas if 70 percent of students are not vaccinated or have negative tests.

On Tuesday evening, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton held a press conference to address the country’s parents, students and teachers ahead of the start of the school year. In her remarks, she warned that the latest model for the reopening of schools in-person may need to be adapted based on case numbers in the coming weeks and months.

A girl tests her sister with a COVID-19 rapid antigen home kit test ahead of the first day of school, in Jerusalem on August 31, 2021.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I appreciate the joint effort that allowed us to achieve our goal of opening the school year [on time],” said Shasha-Biton. “Some parents have concerns, and I know it will not be easy, but we have a moral obligation to bring the children back to school. We owe them this as a society.

“Together we have built a program that will ensure as safe a return as possible for the students and ensure a routine and continuity of study,” the minister continued, adding that her office “will not hesitate to change and adapt the program according to the evolving reality.

“The education system is the solution, not the problem,” she said.

Shasha-Biton said that her office would focus in the coming year on shrinking the gaps in progress created among students as a result of the pandemic over the past year and a half.

“We will emphasize the emotional and social aspects of our students, because they are the infrastructure for optimal learning. A child who is not [emotionally] available for learning will not succeed,” she said.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, in preparation for the opening of the school year nationwide, on August 31, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shasha-Biton said that some 18,000 teachers in the education system have not been vaccinated, along with another 18,000 teaching assistants and other educational staff, and urged them to do so.

“This is a matter of personal example and commitment,” she said.

Staff who are not vaccinated must be tested every few days or they will not be allowed to work.

The minister did not rule out the possibility that schools might be closed if morbidity spreads, as was the case several times last year. “Things need to be addressed in a targeted manner. We will constantly monitor what is happening in the education system,” she said, adding that her office had an obligation to provide children with routine.

Based on the Education Ministry’s plan for reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic, daycare centers, preschools and grades one and two will hold regular in-person learning five days a week in towns designated as green, yellow or orange based on their coronavirus figures.

View of a classroom in a girls school in Tzfat, August 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In towns designated as red due to high case counts, daycares, preschools and grades 1 through 4 will still be allowed to continue learning in person. However, grades 5 through 7 will be required to learn outdoors or in small groups. Grades 8  through 12 will be required to learn outdoors if less than 70 percent of students are exempt from quarantine thanks to vaccination or recovery.

Under the Education Ministry’s updated guidelines, anyone who enters a school or daycare will have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result. Only tests authorized by the Health Ministry will be accepted.

While negative tests are required to enter classes on the first day, Channel 13 news reported that there is a significant shortage in the Health Ministry-approved rapid tests, and that this could cause as many as 250,000 students to not attend classes on Wednesday.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, more than 90,000 students are currently in quarantine — due to either being infected or having come in contact with someone who tested positive. More than half of those who tested positive for the virus on Monday were school-aged children.

Parents and children from the “Cramim” school receive a COVID-19 home kit test ahead of the opening of the new school year, in Jerusalem, on August 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to the Ynet news site, 33% of those who tested positive on Monday were under age 11, 15% were aged 12-18, and just 4% were over 60.

New data shows that Israel has the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new daily coronavirus cases per million people, according to figures published by the Oxford University-based Our World in Data on Tuesday.

The figures showed that Israel has overtaken Montenegro and Georgia with an average of 1,013 new daily cases per million people over a week.

Health Ministry figures updated Tuesday evening showed that 11,077 new coronavirus cases were recorded on Monday, the first time that the number of daily infections in Israel has passed 11,000 since the pandemic began.

Another 5,393 cases had been confirmed by Tuesday evening, bringing the number of active infections to 83,470.

Health personnel take test samples on Israelis wanting to travel abroad, at a COVID-19 testing station in Safed, on August 31, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

There were 716 people hospitalized in serious condition with COVID complications, including 159 on ventilators.

The death toll stood at 7,030.

Of the over 88,000 tests performed since midnight, 6.35% had come back positive, which was down from recent days.

According to the Health Ministry, 5,978,120 people have received one COVID vaccine dose, 5,484,158 have gotten two shots, and 2,192,334 have been administered a third dose.

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