School cancellations in South continue, but Bagrut examinations given go-ahead

Effects of the fragile calm that began in and around the Gaza Strip on Sunday were not immediately felt in the country's southern schools, as many pupils and other residents of the south continued to remain indoors or near bomb shelters, and classes in most areas remained canceled. The only exception to the ongoing school closings, said an Education Ministry spokeswoman, was that bagrut, or high school matriculation exams, were administered in the South on Sunday along with the rest of the country. The exams were taken by 11th and 12th grade pupils who were given the green light by the Home Front Command last week to gradually return to their lessons, held in fortified classrooms and shelters in those schools within 40 km. of Gaza. Nonetheless, the Education Ministry decision to hold the bagrut in the south drew criticism from some local officials, including Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, who asked Education Minister Yuli Tamir to postpone the exams in light of the ongoing security situation. "The position of the Ashkelon Municipality is that we would have preferred to postpone the exams," municipality spokeswoman Anat Weinstein-Berkovitz told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "The pupils are afraid to leave their homes, and the ongoing situation makes it that much more difficult for them to perform well on the exams." Two rockets had landed in Ashkelon on Sunday morning - one inside the city and another in an open area outside the city limits - adding to students' fears, Weinstein-Berkovitz said. There were similar sentiments in the Ashdod Municipality, but no formal request to postpone the exams. A municipality spokesman there told the Post that students had shown up for the exams and that they had been held without incident. "It was unclear if the exams were going to be held at first, but from what I understand, the students who were scheduled to take the exam arrived at the schools and everything proceeded normally," he said. The Education Ministry nonetheless announced on Sunday that students taking the exams in areas under threat of rocket fire would be given bonus points on their final test scores to compensate for stress and added difficulties in preparing for and taking the exams under current conditions. "Students taking the exam in any of the frontline communities, meaning up to 40 km. from Gaza, will be given a bonus of 10 points on their final bagrut scores," an Education Ministry spokeswoman said. "This was the decision of the Education Minister, to ease the burden on those students and assist them during this situation, and she announced it during her meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the leaders of the southern municipalities earlier today." No other changes were issued by the Home Front Command in its weekly briefing, which was given on Saturday night. Schools located within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip were allowed to hold classes as scheduled in buildings that were fortified or had sufficient shelters and safe rooms. Students in the 11th and 12th grades were permitted to attend classes in fortified buildings and shelters in various communities within the 40 km. range, but all other classes remained canceled, as army and municipality officials continued to take the threat of rocket fire seriously. "The Home Front Command issued no changes and the municipalities are continuing to adhere to the instructions that the army hands down," the Education Ministry's southern region spokeswoman told the Post. "In line with that, school will continue to be canceled as it has been for the past three weeks, except in places where the Home Front Command has given permission to hold classes."