Students and teachers in the communities surrounding Gaza kicked off the start of the school year on Monday in a festive manner, though concerns regarding the security situation continued to linger.
“Oddly enough, it was a routine first day of school,” Kineret Rozen-Edelman, an English teacher at the Sha’ar Hanegev High School, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “Though in the back of my head I wonder if it [the rocket fire] is really over.”
Rozen-Edelman, who teaches seventh to 12th graders, recounted a horrifying summer, running to her bomb shelter within the 15-second time frame numerous times a day, an experience she said was shared by many of her students.
“If you were to speak to us a week ago, we [the educators] were thinking of online classes, studying from home, or not studying at all. For us even the thought of teaching or going to school was impossible,” she said.
Regardless, the school year opened in a festive manner, with an opening party for the students to unwind that included music and dancing.
“It is amazing how the kids who live in this area can go from being down about not having two months of vacation to seeing their friends at school and having fun and dancing around,” she said.
“We the teachers have been preparing all these discussions and activities surrounding the conflict, and yet the kids seem fine,” she joked. “Still, we are taking it very slowly and not diving straight into the studies.”
According to Rozen-Edelman, the teachers have to wear “two hats” – on the one hand preparing lesson plans discussing the events of the summer and the students’ fears and thoughts for the first two weeks of school, while on the other hand maintaining an educational framework.
“You can talk about your feelings and the students’ feelings but you might be speaking to the wrong crowd. On the other hand, if you dive right into poetry or studies, some of the students might not be ready just yet – we have to be very sensitive,” she said.
It is not only the students who were affected by the conflict, she added, but also the teachers, many of whom have children of their own and many of whom fled the South only to return home to an uncertain reality days before the start of the school year.
“We are assuming that we will really get back to usual after the holidays, it will take some time to get back into the routine. It is not possible for the students and it is not possible for me either just yet,” she said, adding that “there is always this little thought in your head that it is not completely over.”
Dina Houri, principal of the AMIT Torani Mada’i Elementary School in Sderot, expressed similar sentiments regarding the start of the school year.
“We opened a very exciting year with the full participation of all our pupils in a very festive manner, with clowns, because we really wanted to give the children the feeling of a holiday,” Houri told the Post. Yet, according to the principal, this year is different.
“There is something in the air that you could see. People were on edge and were worried that something might happen,” she recounted.
Still, she said that parents and children alike are excited and ready to return to the normal routine of school.
The elementary school, like all schools throughout the country, will devote the first two weeks of the school year to addressing the events that dominated the summer vacation.
“All the teachers held and will hold discussions about what the children did in the summer and what their fears are,” she explained.
“Some teachers chose to address the issue through arts and creative projects, making models or drawing pictures of what the children are feeling, while others held simulation games.”
According to Houri, teachers cannot ignore the events of the summer and are devoting the first two weeks to rooting out the fears expressed by the children and attempting to address them in a professional manner.
In addition, she said, the Education Ministry allocated a budget of NIS 1,000 per class to hold fun activities for the children during the first two weeks of school, in an attempt to make up for their lost summer.
“We have to be careful not to turn this into a summer camp, so we will use the funds to hold fun activities but also with a learning component, and with a lot of listening and hugs and warmth for the kids,” she said.
The veteran principal said she has 14 years of experience in dealing with the conflict, and is not optimistic regarding the future.
“We are sure it will return, it could take a month, two, three, but it will come back,” she said. “In the meantime, we have to return to the routine and we will be prepared if and when the cease-fire breaks.”
Also in Sderot on Monday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Shai Piron kicked off the 2014/15 school year, visiting first and second grade pupils at the New Amit Torani School in the city, as well as the Mevoim Elementary School in the Merhavim region.
The prime minister and the education minister arrived in the South to strengthen and offer encouragement to educators, parents and pupils on their first day of school.
“We will take care to give you knowledge and security,” Netanyahu told a group of first-grade pupils in Sderot.
“Study the Bible, our heritage, math, computers, and science. Our heritage and the future go hand in hand. Be hungry for knowledge on behalf of the people of Israel, the State of Israel, the Land of Israel, yourselves and your families,” he said.
Netanyahu recounted his first day of school, writing “Hello first grade” on the chalkboard as the pupils excitedly read his message.
The prime minister asked one of the pupils what his favorite animal was, to which the first grader replied, “Snakes.” Netanyahu then told him he could introduce him to some, leading to speculation about the jibe.
Piron addressed the pupils, encouraging them to embrace the Education Ministry’s school year theme: “The Other is I,” and practice tolerance and support of other pupils and their teachers.
“Today, as you start first grade, I would like to give you an assignment, not homework. Look around.
Think about who has fewer friends, look around and ask who made fewer trips over the summer. This is an assignment for each of you.
If during the year a child does not come to school because he is sick, don’t forget to call him. Treat your teachers with respect. When you talk to each other in the yard, don’t forget to talk nicely,” he said.
Our greatest test is not how we behave in wartime but how we behave in times of peace. Our true test is the test of morality, identity and treating each other properly,” he added.
Following their visit to Sderot, the politicians sat in on a second-grade class in Mevoim Elementary School, holding a fun and creative activity surrounding the security events of the summer.
“I know that you did not have as nice a summer as you had planned. I hope that during the upcoming holidays you will have time to relax, play and be with your families and friends. Be friends with each other. Be good children for your parents and be excellent pupils. Have a safe and successful year,” Netanyahu told the pupils.
“Together we will continue the momentum of development, because this is the strongest response to our enemies. They thought that they could drive us out of here. We are building up, and will build up, this country and this part of it,” he said.
President Reuven Rivlin also visited students in the South on Monday.
He went first to the Yitzhak Sadeh School in Dimona, and from there proceeded to the Da’at School at Kibbutz Sa’ad near the Gaza Strip.
He spent a long time with the children of the kibbutz, listening to their experiences, and said that in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge there are people who are looking for victory images.
“But when I’m here in the Gaza Strip, and I see tiny tots with school bags on their backs, busy with creativity, I know that no-one defeats us so quickly. Our victory is encased in education – education for the love of the Land of Israel, love for the homeland, for realization and construction,” he said.
Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen also opened the new school year on Monday by meeting with 12th-grade students at the Sha’ar Hanegev High School and with girls at risk from the youth village in Kibbutz Carmiya near Gaza.
At Sha’ar Hanegev High School, the minister fielded questions and complaints from students and teachers alike who described the difficulty of returning to a normal routine and the sense of despair following two months of continued rocket fire.
Cohen replied that he was willing to accept statements of criticism but said it was important to emphasize that Israel is not to blame for the events that transpired over the summer.
“Our duty is to protect the citizens of Israel and we have to deal with Hamas, who is against us on the basis of religion... and therefore we need to combine military achievements with a political solution,” he said.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.