Coronavirus: Late-night meeting concludes, no decision on schools

“We are concerned about opening education in orange and red areas with high morbidity."

Empty classroom at Cramim school, Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem, October 21 2020 (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Empty classroom at Cramim school, Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem, October 21 2020
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Parents and children once again went to sleep late Sunday night unsure of what the rest of their week would hold, as the government debated late into the night about a new strategy for allowing some children to return to school on Tuesday.
Ultimately, the meeting ended near midnight with a promise to reconvene again on Monday.  However, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial beginning in the morning and a visit to the country later in the day by the Greek prime minister, the meeting will need to begin late again. 
The plan, which was determined in a late-night meeting Saturday by Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Israel Katz, was met by opposition from parents, teachers and local authority leaders alike.
According to their outline, preschoolers, kindergarteners, students in first through fourth grades and those in 11th and 12th grades who live in yellow and green areas would go back to school on Tuesday - though at this point heading back to classrooms by mid-week seems unlikely. They would learn according to pre-lockdown restrictions – wearing masks and in capsules for grades three and up.
However, the recommendation for orange and red areas was different. These same students would return to school, but in smaller capsules beginning even in preschools, hence requiring them to learn in-person only every other day. In addition, they will be asked to study in the open air, meaning outside.
“We are concerned about opening education in orange and red areas with high morbidity,” said Head of Public Health Services Sharon Alroy-Preis. “Before the closure there were outbreaks in schools, one child was ill and dozens got ill with him.
“We do not want to leave the children at home, but the risk in the orange and red cities is significant.”
But the Private Preschool Forum said it opposed the outline.
“We will not return the preschools to activity in an illogical and inapplicable outline like the one that was published,” the forum said in a statement. “Opening preschools with capsules of yes-a-day, no-a-day may cause educational and psychological harm.”
Similarly, the head of local authorities, Haim Bibas, told Channel 12 Sunday night that “I do not understand the logic of this outline.” He called the government “disconnected” and for the ministers to make a decision that would minimally send students in grades 5 through 10 back to school in green areas.
Of note, the outline prepared during the late-night meeting does not include these students at all.
Moreover, only 8.5% of students live in green zones and only 12.1% in yellow zones, meaning that the vast majority of students – nearly 80% – would not have a full solution.
Parents have said that they will protest the outline, if it passes Sunday night by the government, on Tuesday outside the Knesset.
“We are in such a situation that requires great care in opening,” said coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash toward the start of the cabinet meeting. “I am very worried that if we act irresponsibly, we will bring on another wave in that we are coming out [of the lockdown] with such a high rate of infection. You know the situation is very fluid and fragile.”
On Sunday morning, after nearly 40 days, Israel began emerging from its countrywide lockdown.
The 1,000-m. restriction on traveling was abolished at 7 a.m. Nature reserves, national parks and outdoor archaeological sites opened, restaurants and stores were once again allowed to offer takeaway, and one-on-one services and work-from-office for employees at companies that do not directly see the public have resumed.
Even bed and breakfasts are now allowed to welcome nuclear families.
However, as noted, Israeli children remained at home.
“We are still in the midst of a close race between our ‘come back to life’ vaccination campaign and the spread of the British mutation,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting.
He reminded ministers that although Israel began its exit from the closure, “this relief does not mean that the increase in morbidity is behind us. On the contrary, it is not behind us: It still exists in full force.
“We must not become complacent,” he said. “We must not act irresponsibly. Otherwise, the rate of infection will simply go up.”
But Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz expressed a more positive sentiment. He told ministers at the start of the meeting that he was “happy about the responsible opening we enabled this morning and I think we should continue to open responsibly. As such, I think we can find the common language required with an emphasis on early childhood education, one that we can move forward with to make it easier for families without taking very big risks.”
Similarly, Blue and White Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said “public trust is key to lowering morbidity. In order to gain public trust... one needs to understand the public and its capabilities.”
On Saturday night, the number of new daily cases dropped for the first time in weeks in any substantial way. Numbers released around 8 p.m. showed that 6,273 people were diagnosed with the virus on Friday – 7.8% of the people screened were positive. However, by Sunday evening, the numbers looked less promising. There were 2,629 people diagnosed with coronavirus on Saturday – 9.4% of those screened.
The number of serious patients remains high, with 1,101 reported Sunday evening, including more than 333 who were intubated.
The death toll stood at 5,097.
Two mothers in their late 20s are hospitalized in critical condition at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Zichron Yaakov. They both delivered their babies via emergency C-sections this week, the hospital said. There is also a 16-year-old girl hospitalized in fair condition.
The hospital said it is seeing a clear increase in the number of young, serious patients.
Some 20% of infection is among people under the age of 50 – an increase from 10% in the previous wave, according to Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Clalit Health Services and chairman of the National Expert Advisory Panel to the Government on COVID-19.
“The more adults are vaccinated, the more morbidity is seen among the young,” he said.
Moreover, Alroy-Preis warned that not vaccinating children means Israel will not necessarily reach the level of immunity it hoped for.
“The moment we have 2.5 million children that can’t be vaccinated, we probably won’t reach herd immunity, even if the entire population that can be vaccinated: will be vaccinated,” she said Sunday at a Knesset hearing.
Later, at the cabinet, she added that if the economy is opened when the reproduction rate is over one, the hospitals will be congested with patients in serious condition and even 55-year-olds who might otherwise have survived could die.
The vaccination campaign is still going strong, with more than 3.4 million Israelis receiving at least one shot of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
“Our goal is to vaccinate 95% among men and women over the age of 50,” Netanyahu said. “We want to do this in the shortest time possible: two to three weeks.”
The vaccine does seem to be working, according to slides shared on social media by Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science. He showed that there was a 50% decrease in the number of new cases over the age of 60. There was also an 18% decrease in the number of new cases under the age of 60.
However, Alroy-Preis warned that “it is not enough to vaccinate only people over the age of 50 and then widely open up the economy.
Only between 50% and 60% of educators have received their first vaccine, Alroy-Preis said Sunday in the Knesset.