Coronavirus cabinet to finalize decisions on schools, retail Thursday

Netanyahu, Gallant to propose alternative plans for grades 1-2 * Arab sector seeing spike in infection

Jerusalemites wearing face masks for fear of coronavirus  walk on Jaffa road in the City Center of Jerusalem on July 12, 2020. Israel has seen a spike of new COVID-19 cases,  cabinet ministers imposed new restrictions on public gatherings in a bid to stem the rising infection rate of the coronavirus (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Jerusalemites wearing face masks for fear of coronavirus walk on Jaffa road in the City Center of Jerusalem on July 12, 2020. Israel has seen a spike of new COVID-19 cases, cabinet ministers imposed new restrictions on public gatherings in a bid to stem the rising infection rate of the coronavirus
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The coronavirus cabinet meeting is likely to be long and tense on Thursday, as ministers attempt to finalize decisions about what will open on Sunday and how.
After the cabinet made a decision earlier this week to open grades one and two in capsules of up to 18 students, three days per week, with after-school programs pulling together students from as many as three classes, it looks like this decision could be turned upside-down.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now considering allowing classes to resume in full but requiring that there be no mixing in the after-school programs.
At the same time, Education Minister Yoav Gallant rolled out his own plan on Wednesday, in which children in grades one and two would be able to attend class at least four days per week but still in capsules.
The change, according to Gallant, was made possible by reducing the number of days that third and fourth graders will learn in their classrooms from five to four. It is not yet clear if there would be distance learning on the days the children are not in school.
Municipalities that can offer five days in school would be able to do so.
“The plan is to return elementary school students to five days of schooling,” Gallant said.
He said that the damage to students who have not been in school is on multiple fronts – educational and psychological. “I believe in our principals and teachers, who, together with the heads of authorities, will run the educational institutions in the best way possible.”
The shift in strategy for both Netanyahu and the education minister was likely a result of pressure by the local authorities, parents and teachers, and came after heavy criticism on Wednesday from members of the Knesset Education Committee, especially its chairman, Ram Shefa.
At Wednesday’s committee meeting, the members also rejected the outline for allowing students to gather in open spaces, which was approved by the coronavirus cabinet earlier in the week.
The Health and Education ministries had agreed to allow up to 15 students to gather outdoors for any educational or social activity run by their schools. The groups were expected to stay 100 meters apart. The committee said the cabinet should increase the number of students to 20 and decrease the distance between students to 50 meters.
“No professional body was able to explain the limitation of 15 students,” Shefa charged.
In an interview Wednesday morning with KAN News, Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit from Sheba Medical Center, said that “it is clear” that schools need to reopen, because of the damage it is causing to the country’s children. However, she warned, “if we do it too fast, we will see an increase [in infection]. We must do it carefully.”
The numbers, however, are looking better than expected, according to outgoing coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
He said during his weekly briefing Wednesday that the country has surpassed the goal it set for itself of 1,000 new cases per day and that the government had the “green light” to move forward with the next phase of its exit strategy, which is expected to begin on Sunday.
There were 856 new cases diagnosed in the last day out of 41,301 screened, the Health Ministry reported Wednesday evening – around 2% positive cases. There were 471 people in serious condition, including less than 200 who were intubated. The death toll stood at 2,484 at press time.
However, one sector is struggling with increasing infection.
The Health Ministry said that the level of morbidity among the Arab sector is high and spiking, and the Arab localities are at the top of the list of red and orange cities.
According to numbers presented by the Weizmann Institute of Science, there has been a 19% increase in the number of Arab patients in moderate or serious condition in the last week, as opposed to a 60% decrease among the ultra-Orthodox and a 37% decrease in general.
Gamzu said that there has been a significant decrease in the number of Arabs being tested for coronavirus and called on them to get screened.
“A drastic decrease [in tests] has led to an increase in the rate of positive tests,” he explained. “It means that those who come and get tested in the end are only those who are already sick – the symptomatic.”
He added that, starting this coming weekend, there will be a program focused solely on reducing infection among Arab society.
“We are doing everything to help them,” he said. “The outbreak must be stopped.... We may ask for certain restrictions. I am currently in the process of examining what is being done in the education system in these cities.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Finance Minister Israel Katz went head-to-head for another round on Wednesday, fighting over whether street shops would open on Sunday, as Katz wants, or whether the reopening would be tabled to the next stage of the plan, as Edelstein insists is the best plan.
Katz said, “It’s preferable to go with one opinion tomorrow to the cabinet; if there isn’t agreement, there isn’t agreement. I’m for backing up the health minister in many areas, but in retail I won’t compromise.”
Edelstein responded, “Israel, I remind you that we’ve already been to this movie. There is no epidemiological logic in the opening of schools and retail together.”
Edelstein and the health officials in his office have said that schools should be opened first and morbidity examined after two weeks before making a decision about retail.
Katz insisted, “People need to work. [Opening retail] will bring 80,000 people back to work.”
This discussion will also be brought to the cabinet on Thursday.
However, it seems that there is one thing everyone has agreed on: The Health Ministry’s nine-stage exit strategy is expected to be reduced to six stages. Gamzu first told the media about the new proposal during his briefing.
As explained, the cabinet agreed earlier this week to resume classes for first through fourth graders on Sunday. In addition, it approved the reopening of salons and other one-on-one activities and services (driving lessons or personal training, for example), as well as alternative medicine treatments.
It appears that bed-and-breakfasts will now be included in this second stage, too, although a final decision will be made at the meeting.
If the six-stage plan is approved, the third phase of the plan would take off when there are around 500 new cases per day, likely in mid-November. At that time, retail will resume and museums and libraries will open. Grades 11 and 12 would also return to their classrooms.
A fourth phase would start when 250 new cases were diagnosed per day and would include restaurants, cafés, hotels, gyms, pools and sports classes, as well as the resumption of in-school classes for students in grades five and six.
A fifth phase would allow cultural activities and conferences to resume and bars to reopen, as well as send students in grades seven to 10 back to school. The final phase would open ballrooms and sporting events.
With this new plan, Israel will be completely reopened by the end of December, as opposed to mid-February.
Finally, it is expected that the coronavirus cabinet will also talk about whether synagogues could open as early as next week. The argument has been that if people can gather in groups of up to 10 people inside with masks and social distancing, prayer should be an acceptable reason to gather.
Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay has long supported such a decision. Reports indicate that both Netanyahu and Edelstein are likely to vote in favor of opening synagogues, as well.