The government is set to vote today on a plan to return seventh through 10th graders in green and yellow cities who have been learning from home for most of the year to their classrooms as early as this Tuesday, as per a plan presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday.
These grades in “light orange” areas, with at least 70% of older people vaccinated, would return on Sunday.
Students would learn at least three days per week in their classrooms according to the plan, which was revealed during a special conference at which the ministers discussed what will be a four-stage strategy for filling the educational, social and emotional gaps plaguing Israel’s students after a year of distance learning.
The first stage involves extending the school year through the end of July; the Israeli school year usually ends for middle schoolers on June 20 and elementary schoolers on June 30.
The program would be available for students in preschool through grade 11.
“It is necessary to bridge the education gaps created during this difficult year,” Netanyahu said. “We must give every boy and girl in Israel the opportunity to make up for what they have missed.”
As noted, the government has still not approved the plan. It will be voted on at a meeting on Monday.
Moreover, the plan was determined and rolled out to the public before consultation with the Health Ministry, whose members reportedly learned about it from the media.
Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said in an interview with Channel 12 on Sunday that he was not yet fully comfortable with the program, especially the return of additional students to school this week, when the plan was to only send them back on March 7.
“In general, we support the opening of schools and giving priority to getting children out of their homes,” Levy said, “but we said we need a little more time between stages” of the exit strategy.
Netanyahu assured the public that “we will strictly safeguard the rights of the teachers. We will ensure full payment for them… I take responsibility for this.”
Teachers would not be required to teach, but those who agree to the extra month of school will be paid for their normal holiday vacation and an extra month salary. Gallant said that the local authorities would assist in recruiting additional educational staff to carry out the program.
The program is slated to cost around NIS 2.5 billion, though the money for the program has not been formally allocated.
Gallant said that the plan has been in the works for several months and that he formulated it together with the director-general of his ministry and other professional staff. He said the plan has three additional parts, all of which are designed to address the gaps caused by coronavirus.
“We will make focused and correct completions for students so that their confidence in handling the academic materials and their social environments returns to them,” he said.
After the announcement, the head of the Teachers’ Union, Yaffa Ben-David, stressed that the union had not agreed to such a program and that its position has not changed: “The best solution is for the state to run the summer school program, as it has done successfully in previous years. The Teachers’ Union will continue to care for and preserve the rights of teaching staff.”
However, the chairman of the national parents’ union, Merom Schiff, expressed opposite sentiments: “I am pleased that the decision makers responded to our request to find a necessary solution to the ongoing distress of the students, and to reduce the social, pedagogical and emotional gaps of all Israeli children. It is important that learning during the month of July be in educational institutions and not on Zoom.”
The plan was attacked by the Left, including Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, who said that “the abandonment of the education system is the deepest failure of the Netanyahu-Gallant-[Benny] Gantz government in the coronavirus crisis. Even a hundred press conferences will not repair the damage Netanyahu and Gallant did to Israeli students.”
Former Education Committee chairman Ram Shefa said, “Everything you said tonight will not help erase the huge stain you have left on all of our children. This year is lost because you put education at the bottom of your priorities.”
MOREOVER, a move to open schools this week comes at the same time as the Health Ministry is reporting a rise in infection.
On Sunday morning, the ministry showed that the reproduction rate has reached 0.99, meaning that each infected person is infecting just under one more. Hence, ministry officials were not talking about opening up schools early but rather considering delaying the next stage of relief by up to a week.
The country is meant to reopen cafes, restaurants, event gardens and more amenities at hotels beginning on March 7, as well as classrooms for students in grades 7-10. However, if the reproduction rate continues to climb and infection spreads, it is possible that the government will need to delay these openings.
“If the reproduction rate remains as it is today, it is possible – borderline but possible” to open up,” coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told Ynet. “If it goes beyond this, then we will have to think about it carefully.”
He said that the government’s priority would be education and that allowing students in grades 7-10 to return to their classrooms would likely occur either way.
And as for Passover?
“Right now, I have a very hard time predicting Passover,” Ash told Ynet. “It seems far-fetched” that it would be without restrictions.
The reproduction rate of 0.99 is the highest it has been in recent weeks, up from 0.97 the day before and under 0.8 only a week prior. The reproduction rate or “R” indicates how infectious the disease is – the higher the number the more people each sick person infects.
In Arab society, the R is even higher at 1.12, meaning that every eight infected people will infect about nine others.
Health officials believe that the British variant, which accounts for around 80% to 90% of all cases in the country, is the culprit behind the increased spread.
Of course, this current R is reflective only of the openings of classrooms and commerce that Israel took in the last two weeks and does not yet include the illegal Purim gatherings, which could lead to even greater recorded infection in the next 10 days.
Ash told Ynet that “if there is a miracle and there were only vaccinated people [at the Purim parties], there will be no adhesions. But the likelihood is that this is not the case.”
As noted, the government is expected to meet Monday to discuss the next phase. As has been the case in the past, it is likely that the Health Ministry will be backed by Netanyahu, while Blue and White will want to push forward with a green passport program and continue opening up the economy.
According to the most recent data, updated on Sunday morning, 1,429 people were diagnosed with the virus on Saturday, with 6% of those screened testing positive. Some 776 patients were in serious condition, including 241 who were intubated.