60% of eligible students show up for daycare, kindergarten on Sunday

Finance Ministry pushing to open additional grades * Travelers report crowded bus stations and long waits.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion welcomes students on their first day back to school (May 10, 2020) (photo credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY)
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion welcomes students on their first day back to school (May 10, 2020)
The country reopened daycares and kindergartens on Sunday, as part of the government’s efforts to revive the economy, as coronavirus worries subside. At the same time, the Finance Ministry is already pushing the government to open more classrooms and additional grades.
The Health Ministry showed only 4,795 active cases of coronavirus in Israel Sunday night - an increase of 45 from the day before. Among the sick are 65 people who are intubated. So far, 252 people have died. The ministry reported the lowest number of daily coronavirus screenings on Saturday at 3,649.
At 7:55 a.m., some 44,000 principals, managers and aides enthusiastically welcomed around 250,000 kindergarten children, the Education Ministry said. Around 60% of the toddlers and young children who were eligible to return to school attended.
“Great news for the education system, for students, parents and the entire economy," Education Minister Rafi Peretz said, noting that the “health of our teachers and students is more important than anything else.”
To ensure safety, preschoolers were allowed back with enhanced hygiene requirements and group sizes capped – 17 for nurseries, 18 for kindergartens – to allow for social distancing.
Kindergartens are for now accommodating the overflow by admitting children on a rotating half-week basis. Nurseries, by contrast, have allowed only 70% of children back, on full-week schedules, the Labor and Welfare Ministry said, leaving some 40,000 babies and toddlers at home.
Many parents were only informed whether they had a slot or not over the weekend.
Moreover, the Finance Ministry announced that after-school programs could start to run under strict Health Ministry conditions this week, but most programs were not prepared and said they would only open at earliest on Wednesday.
In Jerusalem, where 630 preschools and kindergartens opened, Mayor Moshe Lion met students at school gates to usher them back into their classrooms.
“Activating the education system is the first part of the return to an active economy,” Lion said.
Israel shut down the educational system in mid-March as infection numbers spiked. With the new case rate leveling out, classes resumed last week for the first three and last two grades of school, freeing up parents to go back to work. The Education Ministry said Sunday that to date, more than 1 million students have been allowed to enter the gates of their schools and kindergartens and that it would continue working on a plan to allow the rest of kids a framework by the end of the month.
The Finance Ministry said that if any further restrictions should be lifted they should first be in schools. Officials are recommending rolling out a measurement tool that could help them determine when it is OK to allow more students to go to school, N12 reported, but there is a debate on what that measurement tool should look like between the Health and Finance ministries. The Health Ministry says less than 2,500 sick people. The Finance Ministry says one sick person out of every 7,500 in a community.
There is also discussion around allowing students in grades four through 10 to return on a rotating basis and in smaller class sizes, much like in the preschools.
Further discussions between the ministries and the government are expected later this week.
The battle is not over between Israel’s Teacher Union and the Finance Ministry, either. On Sunday morning, Teacher Union head Yaffa Ben-David accused the ministry of exploiting teachers because they are women.
“I have stopped believing in the Finance Ministry’s failing conduct,” Ben-David said. “To teach students via distance learning is difficult. Why does the dedication of the teaching staff continue to be exploited, because we are women? No other body is treated that way.”
The union has refused to hold classes on the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer, which takes place on Tuesday, despite just resuming studies. That day is traditionally a vacation day.
Some municipalities said they will open schools on the day that is meant to celebrate a break in a plague that is said to have occurred during the days of Rabbi Akiv, despite the union's opposition. Among them are Givatayim, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Yavne.
Lion said that schools would operate in his city on Lag Ba’omer, too, and that teachers and aides would receive full pay.
For those who dropped off their kids and headed to work, long lines and overcrowding were seen on Sunday morning at several of the main bus stations across the country.
Many passengers waited a long time to get on buses and were unable to keep the necessary social distance between passengers while waiting. As passenger trains across the country are still not operational and are expected to be gradually renewed only on Saturday night, and with the absence of bus lines on Fridays and Saturdays, a heavy load was felt at bus stops. This was despite municipalities reinforcing some of the inter-city lines.
In Tel Aviv’s main bus station there were “waves” of passengers who wanted to get on buses and often had to wait a long time on the docks. Heavy overcrowding was also reported at the central stations in Jerusalem, Afula and Haifa. Occasionally, the congestion was reminiscent of the days before the coronavirus crisis.
“The trains have not returned, but overcrowding at the bus stations could become a coronavirus incubator,” said a Tel Aviv resident who was at the city’s main bus stop.
Other travelers spoke of prolonged wait times, which caused them delays at their workplaces.
Dan bus company spokesperson Eitan Piksman noted that supplying additional buses was done under the direction and with authorization from the Department of Transportation.
“We are making every effort to serve the public during these difficult days and are doing everything possible to maximize our existing resources and provide the best possible service in accordance with state guidelines,” he said.
According to the current Health Ministry guidelines, a bus that can accommodate 50 passengers is allowed to carry only 20 passengers.
“This means that for every bus that used to travel in the past regularly, under today’s guidelines we would require three buses and three drivers, and no company has those resources,” Piksman explained. “If a situation arises in which you cannot board, or a bus does not stop at the station, it is not because they do not want to, but simply that drivers must not exceed 20 passengers.”
Reuters contributed to this report.