COVID-19: Israeli schools open this morning - but not in red cities

Coronavirus czar clashed with education minister late into the night * 2.4 million students return to class * 14 people died on Monday

Israeli students wearing protective face masks in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a school in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2020 (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
Israeli students wearing protective face masks in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a school in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2020
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
The coronavirus cabinet decided late Monday night to keep students in 23 red cities home from school on Tuesday, the first day of the school year, in a victory for Prof. Ronni Gamzu. 

Some 2.4 million students went to bed on Monday, on the eve of the first day of school, amid confusion over whether red cities would start school on Tuesday.
The students are set to start a school year that is expected to be challenging due to the impact of the novel coronavirus and the need for social distancing and distance learning.
Gamzu strongly opposed opening these schools; Education Minister Yoav Gallant wanted to see all schools start.
“It could be that the education minister will be justified in the end, but this is not about who is right,” Gamzu said during a press briefing Monday afternoon. “We manage risks, and this is not a risk to take.
Speaking directly to the ministers, he said, “With all due respect, sometimes you do not have all the professional tools... Any person other than me would have gotten up and walked out.”
Gamzu was in part responding to statements made earlier in the morning by Prof. Gabi Barbash, who was first tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the country’s coronavirus commissioner. Barbash said in a radio interview that if he had accepted the position, “with my temperament, I would have resigned three times already: once after the entry of 17,000 students [from abroad to learn in Israel], a second time for Uman and a third time for the start of the school year in red cities.”
At the briefing, Gamzu said he would use all his strength to fight against the decision to allow schools in red cities to resume. He also noted that many of the red and orange local authorities are asking for restrictions to help bring down infections in their cities – including not opening schools.
“I do not believe that the school year will open tomorrow in the red cities as usual,” Gamzu told the press at 4:30 p.m. “They say I am crazy that I ask not to open schools in the red cities, but some of the heads of the authorities are interested in it.”
He said he does not believe there will be a single school without a verified case in red cities. “Therefore, I insist on it and will continue to insist” that these schools do not open.
Former Education Ministry director-general Michal Cohen backed Gamzu. She said that “opening schools in red areas would be a mistake that would lead to closures of entire cities.”
Gamzu also stressed that the infection rate is extremely high at present in the Arab sector, which is very worrisome. A list of 24 red cities published by the Health Ministry showed that 18 of them were Arab towns. Three of the towns were haredi (ultra-Orthodox).
At press time, the full list was: A’avlin, Al-Batuf, Asfiya, Beit Jann, Beitar Illit, Daliat al-Carmel, Ein Mahil, Immanuel, Jaat, Jadeidi-Makr, Jaljulya, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Kfar Aza, Kafr Bara, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Kassem, Lakiya, Ma’aleh Iron, Rehasim, Tiberius, Tira, Umm al-Fahm and Zamar.
Gamzu also used the press conference to explain his “traffic light” program, which is how cities will be identified as red, orange, yellow or green. While green cities are supposed to have minimal restrictions, he stressed that the plan only works if red zones are controlled. This would likely include restrictions on movement, in addition to the schools.
Outside of the red zones, however, schools were expected to open Tuesday as planned, according to a ruling by Judge Hadas Yahalom on Monday.
Yahalom ruled against the Teachers Union’s right to strike after the union and the Education Ministry agreed to maintain a dialogue – and that no teachers will be placed on unpaid leave without being allowed to present their case in the space of 24 hours.
The ministry agreed to offer 800 pre-retirement positions to teachers who can present medical verification that they are at risk for becoming seriously ill from coronavirus.
On Sunday, the ministry also offered to help protect teachers by investing NIS 30 million in purchasing protective gear for those teaching in preschool and elementary school.
The National Parents Association also reported that it will not call on parents to avoid sending their children to school, thus disrupting the school year, after “creative, alternative solutions” were found to allow children to learn more than two days a week in their classrooms.
The original outline provided by the Education Ministry involved fifth and sixth graders learning two days a week in school and three remotely. Parents objected to the outline, explaining that their children could not manage to be on their own for so many hours, and likely would not be able to follow the curriculum without parental guidance.
“We are aware that not all schools can report that all problems were solved,” Parent Association head Mirom Shif said. “We continue to work with all those involved to find practical solutions in the near future.”
Associate vice chairwoman Odelia Cohen-Schondors added that, “Our goal was never to disrupt the year just for the sake of striking. It was to motivate the Education Ministry to work harder for the benefit of all Israeli children.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Cohen-Schondors said that “many additional improvements need to be made to ensure all children in the country will be included [fully in school] and not only some of them,” but that she feels that the negotiations now being held between parents, ministry officials and local councils are much more effective than they were previously.
A mother to two children about to begin sixth and 11th grades said that she has mixed feelings about the upcoming year.
“New beginnings during a crisis are always good,” she said. “But the COVID-19 challenge was not solved, and I am concerned both as a mother and for the education level my children are being offered.”
During the briefing and an earlier one for the ultra-Orthodox press, Gamzu also spoke about his protest against ultra-Orthodox travelers to Uman, and the letter he wrote to the president of Ukraine asking him to stop flights there from Israel. Gamzu said that 30,000 Israelis traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah could bring lockdown on Israel and will lead to a spike in sick people in both countries.
“I bear on my back a heavy responsibility for the management of coronavirus,” Gamzu said. “I conveyed a professional message to the government of Ukraine, and I stand behind it.”
On Monday, N12 reported that out of the 2,000 passengers who have thus far arrived in Ukraine, one passenger – a 20-year-old who arrived on Friday – tested positive for coronavirus. The young man is in isolation at a local coronavirus hotel, alongside two passengers who traveled in a car with him. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health has been updated on all the details.
Meanwhile, some 1,103 people were diagnosed with the novel virus on Sunday, the Health Ministry reported Monday, plus another 1,894 between midnight and press time. There were 437 people in serious condition, including 125 who were intubated. Fourteen people died Monday, bringing the death toll to 939.
Netanyahu was asked about the rate of infection at the end of a press briefing Monday on the historical flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates and whether or not the government was still considering a lockdown. He said a closure would only happen when Israel reached or surpassed 700 to 800 serious patients.
“Currently, we are about halfway there,” he said.
Finally, negotiations between striking lab technicians in Israel and the Finance Ministry broke down with no agreement on Monday, and the technicians are likely to continue their strike for at least one more day.
The chairwoman of the Israel Association of Biochemists, Microbiologists and Laboratory Workers, Esther Admon, blamed officials from the Finance Ministry for the lack of progress in the negotiations.

Hannah Brown contributed to this report.