Israel shutters schools, universities as coronavirus patients top 100

“Schools and kindergartens are incubators of infectious diseases."

A GROUP of junior high school students are demanding the government fulfill its educational duty to them.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A GROUP of junior high school students are demanding the government fulfill its educational duty to them.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Schools and universities are shuttering for at least a month until after the Passover holiday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday as the number of Israelis infected with the coronavirus rose to 109.
Only preschools, special education and youth-at-risk centers will remain open. In addition, the country is looking for solutions for emergency workers who have children in grades one through three.
“We do this with the knowledge of the impact it will have, and after much discussion,” Netanyahu said. “We are living through an ever-evolving event that no one understands, and we don’t know how it will end.”
He said the country is trying to “buy precious time” to enable health professionals to treat the sick and researchers to develop a vaccine.
Netanyahu added that officials know that “we need to deal with public transportation and the prisons – any place that the virus can spread.”
Earlier in the day, after the Education Ministry reported that only 85% of students showed up for school, it held a meeting on the subject of closing schools and moving to distance-learning programs.
“There are more and more questions,” the ministry’s director-general Shmuel Abuav said on Thursday. “As coronavirus turns into a mini-pandemic, it will require a lot of energy to disinfect schools and keep students, teachers and staff safe.” He said that schools are “non-sterile” and that the Health Ministry was pushing for school closure.
In addition, also on Thursday, the Teachers Union of Israel sent a letter to Netanyahu requesting that he close down Israel’s educational institutions and move students to remote learning.
“Israel is one of the most crowded countries in the world,” wrote chairwoman Yaffa Ben-David in a letter. She noted that Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Poland have all closed their schools, which has reduced the spread of the coronavirus in those countries.
“Schools and kindergartens are incubators of infectious diseases,” Ben-David wrote, “posing a serious and immediate danger to students, teachers and their family members – especially those with poor immune systems or preexisting conditions.
“We will not be able to stop the spread of the virus across the country once it infects entire schools,” she continued.
Ben-David accused the Education Ministry of putting the economy over the health and well-being of teachers.
“I ask you to order the closure of all educational institutions in Israel,” Ben-David concluded.
Preschool teachers immediately began protesting the prime minister’s decision to leave these establishments open, and the Teachers Union threatened to strike, explaining that young children inherently touch themselves and transmit germs through their spit and other means. The teachers said that they feel their health is being threatened by coming to work.
According to UNESCO, as of 12 March, 26 countries have closed schools nationwide to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, impacting close to 377 million students. Another 20 countries have implemented localized school closures.
Over the Purim holiday, the Jerusalem Municipality prepared for classes to resume by placing additional soap and antibacterial hand gel stations in local schools. It also scheduled educational sessions for students to learn better personal hygiene.
The Bedouin school system on Thursday morning sent out a message informing its population that high school students would be studying from home via virtual teaching. The message said that students would gather at a regular time – like a regular class – each in front of a computer or smart phone. The students would be presented with the materials and be able to ask questions. Anyone who cannot afford the technology would be able to complete their coursework when the quarantine is lifted.
The prime minister said that the country is working toward increasing the number of checks conducted per day. According to Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, Israel currently tests around 750 people for coronavirus each day; the goal is to test closer to 2,000.
On Wednesday, the prime minister rolled out a series of new restrictions limiting events to 100 people. However, he and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov noted that they did not see a need to close schools at this time, a decision that was reversed a day later.
Early Thursday, multiple universities across the country announced that they would not be resuming classes as planned on Sunday but would push them off to prepare to establish virtual teaching.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, sent out a notice that in light of the coronavirus crisis, the school “will delay the opening of spring semester by one week to prepare for remote-learning options... All classes will be taught online only, and students will tune in via remote-learning options, such as Zoom.”
The school said that the libraries, research labs and administrative offices would remain open as usual.
“Hebrew University remains in close contact with Israel’s Health Ministry,” the school said in a statement, “and will continue to provide students, faculty members and administration with up-to-date information, as warranted.”
Interior Minister Arye Deri said he will convene a meeting on Sunday with all local and regional councils to discuss the spread of the coronavirus and how the country’s local authorities will be able to continue providing necessary services.
At that meeting, officials are expected to discuss issues of municipal taxation, staffing when employees are in quarantine, and other challenges.
Currently, nearly 35,000 Israelis are in home quarantine, the Health Ministry announced. Of the 109 Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus, three of them have recovered.
It was revealed Thursday that a doctor, who works in the emergency room at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and has been diagnosed with coronavirus, worked a shift before entering isolation.
Anyone who came in contact with the doctor was asked to enter isolation immediately and patients who were treated by him were personally informed about the situation by the hospital.
On Thursday morning, Bar Siman Tov told Army Radio that he expects that in the near future, dozens of Israelis will be diagnosed with the virus per day, if not more.
Over the last week, the ministry has been rolling out new restrictions to curtail the spread of the potentially lethal virus. These include limiting public gatherings including weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and funerals, both in open and enclosed areas, to no more than 100 people.
Netanyahu in his talk on Thursday encouraged people to refrain from attending even these events.
Bar Siman Tov advised Israelis to “change your lifestyle to deal with an external threat” and reminded them that the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions are most at risk from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Earlier in the week, Netanyahu announced that anyone entering Israel will be required to observe a 14-day home-quarantine. Foreigners who cannot prove they have a place to stay will be refused entry.
Litzman has compared Israel to Switzerland, which has a similar population, to show how well the country is doing at curtailing the spread of the virus. On Wednesday, the southern Swiss canton of Ticino declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus. According to local media, approximately 130 people have been confirmed to be carrying the virus in the canton, 11 are in intensive care and one has died.
As of March 11, there were 650 cases of coronavirus in Switzerland, more than 1,000 in the United States and about 130,000 worldwide.
The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic.
“We have made this assessment for two main reasons: first, because of the speed and scale of transmission,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday. “Almost 125,000 cases have now been reported to WHO, from 118 countries and territories. In the past two weeks, the number of cases reported outside China has increased almost 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has almost tripled.
“The second reason is that despite our frequent warnings, we are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it,” he continued. “We have to double down.”