Third COVID-19 lockdown begins as controversy surrounds schools opening

Edelstein: reopening all grades ‘will surely extend the closure’ • Teachers’ Union head: ‘we will not hesitate’ to sanction and strike

Police officers enforcing third lockdown on inter-city roads  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Police officers enforcing third lockdown on inter-city roads
As Israel entered its third lockdown at 5 p.m. on the issue of education was front and center, as the government hammered out details of how schools would operate during the closure.
The Knesset Education Committee, led by MK Ram Shefa, approved a change to the proposed lockdown regulations on Sunday morning that would allow students in grades 5-10 to continue learning at school.
Last Thursday, the proposal called for those students to stay home while preschools and grades 1-4 and 11-12 would study from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. In response to an outcry from parents, municipal authorities and medical experts, the 1 p.m. deadline was changed later that day and it was decided that students would study a full day.
The other main lockdown regulations that went into effect include the closure of retail businesses (except for groceries and pharmacies), except for deliveries.
Businesses that do not receive customers will be allowed to remain open at 50% capacity or up to 10 employees. Gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 20 people outdoors or 10 people indoors. Individual sports activities will be allowed with no distance restrictions.
The additional education revision approved Sunday will allow grades 5-10 to operate a full day on their in-person learning days and to study on Zoom the rest of the time. The high schoolers will study in capsules and be allowed to interact with up to three other capsules; teachers will be able to instruct up to four capsules.
The government has 48 hours from Sunday morning to submit a revised proposal for committee approval; until then, students will continue to study as usual.
Parents’ groups welcomed the change, with the National Parents Organization saying in a statement prior to the decision: “We will not allow the members of the cabinet to continue abusing our children.”
Parent advocates also highlighted a report by Elem, the organization that helps youth in distress, which said that there has been a 41% increase in adolescents experiencing serious mental health issues, as well as a sharp rise in substance abuse.
BUT HEALTH Ministry officials were unhappy. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said in response to the decision that “lockdown requires personal responsibility from each and every one of us. Unfortunately, not everyone acts responsibly. We saw this today in the Knesset’s Education Committee, in the unfortunate decision to resume schooling in all classrooms – something that will surely extend the closure.”
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash also disagreed strongly with this decision, saying in a briefing, “According to our recommendation, the education system should have been closed. The government’s decision was to allow the opening of kindergartens, grades 1-4 and 11-12. Any additional opening of classrooms means extending the duration of the closure and lowering its effectiveness.
“In my opinion, it is right to make the closure as short as possible, to limit activities and not to conduct studies along with other age groups,” he said.
At the same time, Education Minister Yoav Gallant instructed the director general of his ministry to give immediate notice to the directors of the districts and of the educational institutions, according to which the education system will continue to operate on Monday as it did on Sunday.
But as of Sunday night, two factors threatened to derail the wishes of so many parents hoping their children would be able to study during the third lockdown.
The first was uncertainty about pupils in red and orange cities and/or neighborhoods, according to the traffic-light plan of differential regulations depending on the morbidity rates in different areas.
It was not clear which cities and neighborhoods were actually designated red and orange, since the traffic-light colors are supposed to be updated weekly on Thursday and the instructions derived from them are supposed to be valid for an entire week – but the colors were not updated last week. The last time the stoplight plan was calculated, more than half of the country (56%) was in red or orange areas.
The other factor that might interfere with the plan was a labor dispute announced Sunday by the Teachers Union, in protest over teachers not being vaccinated yet.
Yaffa Ben-David, secretary general of the Teachers Union, said Sunday that, “if there are no vaccines, there will be no studies – we will not agree to abandon the health of teaching staff... It is not possible for teaching staff to sacrifice themselves while all Israeli citizens are in lockdown and the state will not take care of their health protection. There is no reason not to vaccinate the teaching staff. “
She noted that, “just a few days ago, the Health Ministry published a report according to which teaching staff are at a high risk of infection, at a rate of 50% relative to the general population.” She said that the union would not hesitate to take further steps. “If the problem is not resolved, we will not hesitate and take organizational measures – including sanctions and a strike.”
IN HIS BRIEFING, Ash said that “within a few days” a decision would be made about when and how teachers would receive vaccinations. Edelstein announced Saturday night that he had instructed the director general of his ministry, Prof. Chezy Levy, to facilitate the vaccination of teaching staff.
When the teachers do get vaccinated, it may be in a new vaccination center that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is opening with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center on January 4 at Rabin Square.
The center will include an immunization tent with 20 stands that will be operated by the hospital’s nursing staff. Initially, the center will be open to residents of the city aged 60 and over, and later to all Israelis. When it opens, it will operate from Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The center is expected to vaccinate about 5,000 people a day in the first phase; later, that will increase. The vaccines will be given according to the guidelines set by the Health Ministry.
“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the municipality has been mobilized to protect the health of the residents and to maintain a sense of routine alongside the virus,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
“We have set up an epidemiological research center with over 100 researchers, testing centers in the neighborhoods and now, a huge vaccination center in collaboration with Ichilov [hospital, Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv],” he said. “We will continue to be at the forefront of the struggle for the benefit of the city’s residents and all the citizens of the country.”
“As we enter the third closure, it is clear to all of us that our main goal right now is to vaccinate as many civilians as possible,” added Ichilov’s director and former coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
“Through Mayor Ron Huldai, who immediately signed on with the Rabin Square vaccine center, we will continue to vaccinate thousands of people a day in the huge compound we are setting up with the municipality, all for one purpose – to finally get rid of coronavirus.”
The system for scheduling appointments for the new complex is still being determined, and will be published later.
“We’re completing the first week of coronavirus vaccinations with an unbelievable number of 280,000 vaccinated people,” Edelstein tweeted Sunday, adding that 71,000 people were vaccinated during the weekend alone. “We’ll continue to keep Israel safe,” he said. The Maccabi Health Fund reported Sunday that today 21,009 patients have been vaccinated.
Since the beginning of the operation, 82,077 Maccabi members have been vaccinated. Tomorrow, it promised that the vaccine rate will increase even more.
Since the beginning of the vaccination operation, 445,277 appointments have been set for 227,538 Maccabi members.
ISRAEL IS once more first place worldwide in vaccine distribution, according to the tracker by Our World in Data. Edelstein, who is in the Likud Party, celebrated the accomplishment in a statement targeting unity government partner Blue and White, saying that, “While Blue and White practices populism and irresponsibility at the expense of public health, we’re working hard and have led Israel to the first place in the world regarding vaccine distribution and concern for public health.”
While the hospital system has not collapsed, Jerusalem area hospitals are full. The Health Ministry on Sunday morning directed Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency medical service, to stop sending coronavirus patients to hospitals in Jerusalem in an attempt to reduce pressure on them. Patients from the Jerusalem area will be sent to hospitals in central Israel starting Sunday, including Sheba Medical Center, Beilinson Hospital and the Sourasky Medical Center.
As of Sunday morning, the ministry reported that from midnight Friday to midnight Saturday, 2,636 cases were diagnosed and another 1,097 were added between midnight Saturday and 7 a.m. on Sunday. Six hundred and four patients were in serious condition and 136 were on ventilators. Since the pandemic began, 3,222 have died.
While Edelstein expressed concern over the decision to keep all school grades open, he praised the teams in charge of the vaccinations countrywide, saying: “But I trust you, citizens of Israel. If we all act responsibly, we will see the great light at the end of the plague.”
Blue and White said: “In all countries of the world, the education system also operates in a quarantine. Netanyahu, who has avoided dealing with hot spots and raising fines for narrow political reasons, continues to use corona for his political needs.
“We will not be preached to by those who bring hundreds of thousands of families to poverty and have not passed a budget just to escape the law and harm the justice system.”
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.