Amid coronavirus, Israel's preschools unlikely to restart Sunday

Government set to battle on Tuesday over first stage of lockdown exit strategy.

Head of Public Health Servies Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis (photo credit: Courtesy)
Head of Public Health Servies Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A fight between the Health Ministry and some members of Blue and White over when and how much the country will open is likely to occur on Tuesday at the coronavirus cabinet meeting.
The ministry wants to wait to open up anything until there are no more than 2,000 new daily patients while party members want to see some businesses and preschools resume operation as early as this week.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of Public Health Services, said on Sunday that “in my opinion, no” – schools will not open in seven days.
She said the Health Ministry is measuring the country’s reproduction rate, otherwise known as R, and it is definitely not under one. The ministry’s exit strategy requires an R of 0.8 – that one coronavirus patient infects less than one other person – and 2,000 or fewer new corona patients per day.
She added that despite the numbers that were seen on Sunday when testing hit a low of less than 13,000 in a single day, health experts assume that Israel is still holding at around 3,000 new patients per day.
“This means that we are not holding at the rate of infection that we set for the first stage” of the exit strategy, which will be discussed and hopefully passed in some form at the cabinet meeting later this week. “We must move according to data and not dates.”
Alroy-Preis said that “I am also a mother of children in first and third grades and I want to know when they will go to school, but I know that it is forbidden to set a date and open studies according to it.”
The head of public health convened the briefing on Sunday to review the ministry’s exit plan, which has nine stages and could take as long as four months to complete. In between each stage there is supposed to be two weeks for evaluation of the impact of the previous stage on the rate of infection.
“The data today is encouraging, but this is the data from the weekend, so we have to be very careful,” she said at the start of the discussion. “We still do not think that we have reached our goal.”
On Sunday, the Health Ministry reported that only 888 new patients were diagnosed on Saturday – out of the 13,409 screened, some 6.6% tested positive. There were 824 people in serious condition, including 230 who were intubated. The death toll was at 1,980.
In response to Alroy-Preis’s comments, Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz said that his party would push to open private, non-customer-facing businesses as early as this week – within the Purple Ribbon outline. He also said that the country should prepare to open preschools within the coming days.
“The decline we are seeing in morbidity is good but it has had a heavy price on hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods; on businesses that are on the verge of shutting down; and on the hundreds of thousands of children who are not receiving a proper education,” he said.
“This time, we must not recklessly leave the quarantine, but it is possible in the coming days to give a limited answer to establishments where there is no danger of illness.”
He said that opening up small businesses that do not greet the public – and providing parents of pre-schoolers with an answer – could help the entire economy and save the country billions of shekels without increasing health risk.
NA’AMAT PRESIDENT Hagit Peer also called on the government to vote against the ministry and allow pre-schoolers to return to their classrooms.
“According to research, toddlers are almost non-infectious,” Peer said. “Hundreds of thousands of parents in Israel are at a loss while trying to maintain their livelihoods and [simultaneously] create a daily routine for their children.”
She added that being out of school is bad for children’s mental and social development.
“In terms of the education system, it is clear that it is not possible to start a job without first opening preschools for children aged 0-6 and then lower grades,” Alroy-Preis said during the briefing. “We do this in a measured and careful way and we separate it into different stages. This will be done together with the Education Ministry, to ensure there is a more careful outline than previously.”
She said that the idea of serologically testing teachers is being considered.
Alroy-Preis presented the details of what she defines as the “next closure-prevention strategy.”
In the first stage of the exit strategy, non-customer-facing businesses will be able to operate. Restaurants could provide takeaway and beaches and nature reserves could open up. At the same time, children between the ages of newborn and six could return to school.
This stage would also remove the restriction of traveling 1,000 meters from home.
“We do not want to remain in a quarantine where people are not allowed to move,” she said.
With that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not push to continue the state of emergency when it comes up for a vote at the Knesset on Wednesday, according to media reports. If this is the case, then protests would resume as they had been before Yom Kippur.
Stage two would reopen classrooms for students in grades one through four, as well as alternative medicine services. Stage three would open up customer-facing businesses, retail, bed and breakfasts and synagogues. Stage four would mean restaurants, coffee houses and gyms and stage five hotels and pools.
Stage six would allow students in grades five through 12 to go back to school.
Stage seven would resume culture, leisure, events and concerts. Stage eight would allow event halls to operate and stage nine would allow for sporting events with an audience and for clubs and bars to resurface.
According to Alroy-Preis, the epidemiological logic of these stages is that places where there is a low risk of infection will open early and those with a high risk will stay closed until later stages. The higher risk places are those in which people do not wear masks or that are inside.
But she cautioned that in order for the exit strategy to work, there is a principle that cannot be broken: to manage Israel’s opening of the economy based on morbidity, not on dates.
She answered a question from The Jerusalem Post about whether populism would get in the way of carrying out the program with the simple answer: “I am not sure.”
Her answer was given while a meeting was taking place between Netanyahu, Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Finance Minister Israel Katz, Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
It was at that meeting that Netanyahu warned against such populism. “You were all against closure” and the disease spiked. “I had to fight for closure and now everyone sees that it has led to a dramatic drop in morbidity,” he said.
“Now, we have not even received the data,” he continued, “and we are already speaking about reducing restrictions and opening fast – fast without care. I will not accept this.”
His comments were revealed by Channel 12.
Netanyahu’s comments were likely partially in response to Blue and White ministers who are pushing to open up before the Health Ministry recommends, but also against comments made Sunday by Coronavirus Knesset Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton. She has called on the government to open up now.
“We need to open up now, not in a week,” she said in an interview Sunday morning with Army Radio. “There are restrictions that everyone knows have no epidemiological logic. Why wait? Society is crashing.”
Alroy-Preis said that in the first three stages, all of Israel will be viewed as a “red zone,” until which time the country will roll out the traffic light program and there will be differences between activities in cities and towns depending on whether the infection rate is high or low.
But MK Yaakov Asher, chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said that “If there is no clear plan, there will be no closure on red cities.”
He asked how people in those cities would go to work, not be fired from their jobs, and receive medical care out of their zone.
“Professionals cannot just ignite traffic lights,” Asher said.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox leader who himself has been diagnosed with COVID-19 – recommended that Talmud Torah academies would be opened on Monday, despite Health Ministry regulations that prevent this.
However, he noted that this was only his recommendation and that it was better for this decision to be made with the consent of professional bodies, in collaboration with local municipalities. Later, the Jerusalem Municipality reported that at the request of Mayor Moshe Lion to Kanievsky, Talmud Torah schools would not open in the Holy City.