Coronavirus cabinet approves some schools opening on Thursday

Preschools and grades 1-4 to open in areas with lower infection rates. Eleventh and 12th grades to stay home.

An empty classroom (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An empty classroom
The first group of Israeli students will be back in class on Thursday after the coronavirus cabinet approved their return on Tuesday night.
According to the plan, beginning on Thursday, preschoolers, kindergarten children and pupils in grades 1-4 in yellow and green areas will return to school. Children in “light orange” areas, according to the Health Ministry’s traffic light rating, that have at least 70% of their community vaccinated will also go back to school.
The Health Ministry ranks the color of each city weekly and also will begin determining the vaccination rate of each authority weekly.
In large cities, the Health Ministry will allow students in certain neighborhoods that meet the same criteria to return to their studies. For example, although the city of Tel Aviv is orange, in some neighborhoods, classes will resume.
The ministry shared a list of orange cities where classes will resume. These include Tirat Carmel, Kfar Yona, Karmiel, Mevaseret Zion, Ness Ziona, Savyon, Kiryat Motzkin, Ramat Gan, Ramat Yishai and Ra’anana.
The plan, which must still be approved by the full cabinet, prioritizes regular testing of students in these orange zones to help keep their classrooms coronavirus free. It also permits groups of 10 students to meet for social or learning activities through their schools in open areas.
Students in grades 5-6 and 11-12 in these areas will return to school on February 23, and students in 7-10 on March 9, if the rate of infection continues to slowly decline and more people are vaccinated.
Students in red areas will continue to learn remotely.
The cabinet began meeting at around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, with the aim of passing a plan to slowly reopen schools and to review a staged exit strategy that would allow the economy to resurface from the lockdown.
“We are in a national emergency,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday during a visit to a vaccination station in the Arab town of Zarzir. His visit took place before the cabinet meeting.
“It seems that we will start to open the education system in the coming days,” he said. “The reason that we are doing this gradually is that there are around 2.5 million children, and when there is the British mutation running amok, they could infect their parents who are in their 40s and 50s.”
“We are trying to do this gradually so that they children will not infect others and will not be added to the severe cases that are crowding the hospitals and will, afterward, fill the cemeteries,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier in the week, it appeared that more schools would open. However, a shift in thinking came after cabinet ministers were warned by top health professionals on Sunday night that opening schools quickly could lead to a rapid and extensive spread of the virus, including among children and younger adults.
“We are concerned about opening schools in orange and red areas with high morbidity,” Prof. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services, said Sunday night. “Before the lockdown, there were outbreaks in schools. One child would get ill, and dozens more would follow.
“We do not want to leave the children at home, but the risk in the orange and red cities is significant,” she said.
The rate of infection appeared to be slightly declining in recent days.
ON TUESDAY evening, the Health Ministry reported that 7,778 new cases of the virus were diagnosed the day before, with 8.8% of people screened testing positive.
The number of patients in serious condition remained high at 1,069, including 418 people who were in critical condition. The death toll stood at 5,202.
The cabinet also approved that even people who have been vaccinated or recovered from coronavirus will be required to show a negative coronavirus test to enter Israel from abroad. The test must be taken 72 hours before boarding the aircraft. Another test must be taken on arrival.
However, those who are vaccinated or recovered are exempt from entering isolation. 
This ruling is expected to go into effect in four day. 
The cabinet also discussed a plan to roll out the “green passport” program to enable the strategic opening of more commerce and even hotels. At press time, no final decisions had been made.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted late Monday night that after a day of intense meetings, he and Netanyahu had agreed on a plan to be presented to the coronavirus cabinet that centers on the green passports, “so that we can open the economy safely alongside promoting actions to increase the rate of vaccination.”
Netanyahu confirmed the tweet in Zarzir on Tuesday.
“We will also issue green passports, and then people will be able to go with the green passports,” he said. “We will be able to gradually open the various areas of life, gradually starting with education and afterward the other areas. This is exactly what we are discussing.”
According to the plan reviewed by the government, beginning on February 23, if there are three million people vaccinated with their second doses of the coronavirus vaccine – including 90% of people over the age of 50, less than 900 serious cases and a reproduction rate (R) of less than one – more can open.
This phase would include the opening of street shops, strip malls, gyms, cultural and sporting events, museums, exhibitions, libraries and hotel rooms.
If the country continues to see a decrease in infection, by March 9 more activities could resume. This would also be dependent on having four million people vaccinated with their second doses of the vaccine, including 95% of those over 50. The R and the number of serious patients would need to hold steady, too.
In this phase, cafes, restaurants, hotels – including hotel restaurants, pools and other amenities – halls, attractions and conferences could resume.
 As of Tuesday evening, 3.57 million people had received at least their first shot. Some 2,200,359 had both. Some 122,000 people were vaccinated on Monday, the Health Ministry reported Tuesday morning.
Late Monday, Gantz sent a letter to Netanyahu and the cabinet secretary asking that the full transcript of coronavirus cabinet meetings be revealed to the public, after leaks earlier in the week revealed ugly arguments between Gantz and the prime minister.
 “Over the past few months, public confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the coronavirus has eroded,” Gantz wrote. “Public trust is essential for dealing with the virus, and it is clear to everyone that government transparency is the best way to deal with this damage.”
Tobias Siegal and Aaron Reich contributed to this report.