As gov't debates, experts warn of harm of keeping children out of school

Different officials in the Health Ministry have given varying estimates for when children will be able to go back to school.

Ultra-Orthodox children wearing face masks at their school in the city of Rehovot, May 24, 2020 (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
Ultra-Orthodox children wearing face masks at their school in the city of Rehovot, May 24, 2020
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
As the coronavirus cabinet prepares for a debate Tuesday on proposed plans for reopening the schools, experts warn that keeping students out of schools any longer could have long-term negative consequences for children, families and society as a whole.
In addition, experts stress that children, especially children under 10, are at very low risk for the virus, and, in contrast to what has often been reported in the media, are not so-called super-spreaders.
Different officials in the Health Ministry have given varying estimates for when children will be able to go back to school. Some have said that preschoolers may be able to start school again as early as Sunday, while elementary school children will have to wait, possibly until November or December, and high school students probably not until January.
But that isn’t soon enough for many. It isn’t only harassed parents run ragged by working at home, being full-time caregivers and IT specialists, solving all the frequent technical problems with remote learning via Zoom or other methods, who want their kids back in school. Education and pediatric specialists insist that remote learning is no substitute for in-person classes – and not medically necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.
“When you look at the data, schools are not driving the spread of infection,” said Dr. Alexander Gileles-Hillel, a pediatrician who specializes in pulmonology at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem. He has been researching this question closely with a group of doctors and academics from Hadassah and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the group has written several reports on the issue.
“We strongly believe the children are the victims of COVID management and not of COVID disease,” said Ora Paltiel, a professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health, and one of the authors of a report published earlier this month. The research was sent to coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry.
Gileles-Hillel said, “The consequences of keeping kids home are horrible.” He said that research has shown that remote learning can contribute to obesity, depression and anxiety in children, as well as exacerbating problems for children who already have learning disabilities. “We have to be advocates for the children,” Gileles-Hillel said.
Prof. Izhar Oplatka, who teaches educational administration and policy in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, cautions about long-term, serious repercussions of not getting children of all ages back into schools as quickly as possible.
“What they all need is human attention, not technical attention,” he said, noting that teachers routinely report that large numbers of students often fail to log onto remote learning sessions and that when they do, they often find their attention lagging when they are one of 30 squares on a screen.
While the current plan on the table is to keep teens at home until 2021, he said that these students need to be in school at least as much as their younger counterparts.
“They have matriculation exams coming up,” he noted. One of the dangers of keeping high schoolers at home is that “it will increase the inequalities between privileged and underprivileged students.” The wealthier students who can afford tutoring will catch up quickly, or won’t fall behind at all, he said, but it will be much tougher for those from families that cannot give them attention and support. “There will be negative consequences for the weakest students,” who may not be able to catch up before they graduate.
More than that, he said it was important to remember that, “School is more than a place to add content to their brain. It is first and foremost a social arena... Zoom can’t substitute for the human interactions in the classroom.”
One silver lining of the coronavirus crisis is that, “People who worried that computers can replace teachers have realized that the computer is no substitute for a teacher in the classroom,” said Oplatka.
“This is a lost year, not just in terms of curriculum and content,” he said. “I’ve asked teachers, whether on the day we all can go back into normal life again, can we expect students to go back into class and learn as they did a year ago, and they say, ‘No!’ They have been disconnected from their normal life and the way back won’t be easy.”
Given the long-term nature of this crisis, Oplatka said that the “first aid” for the education system would be giving local school systems more autonomy about deciding when and how to reopen. “Let each school create its own policy. They know their community and their culture.”
If students are not back in the classroom soon, “We will see a huge dropout rate of marginalized students,” he warned.
Maayan Hoffman contributed to this report.