Can schools open safely?

I found that you can open schools safely – but the resources, facilities, discipline, dedication, effort and planning required are greater than what most Israeli schools can muster.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Gallant visit a class at the opening of the 2020-2021 school year at the Netaim primary school in Mevo Horon on September 1 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Gallant visit a class at the opening of the 2020-2021 school year at the Netaim primary school in Mevo Horon on September 1
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Can Israeli schools open safely?
As Israel’s coronavirus cabinet fiercely debates how to release the country from its second lockdown, including schools, I interviewed a school official from a large school in North America – pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The school is fully open, has been for several weeks, and so far is safe.
I choose not to identify the school or the interviewee. When one school does demonstrably well and others do less well, ill feelings can result.
My own conclusion from what follows? Yes, you can open schools safely – but the resources, facilities, discipline, dedication, effort and planning required are greater than what most Israeli schools can muster.
Readers, you decide!
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“I am one of the many people who are responsible for creating schedules and helping to make things work. I am the person who is doing a lot of the work but I am not the person who did a lot of the planning. It is hard to work so hard and come out with a product that feels less than excellent.
“In order to keep students safe and keep teachers safe, and keep children safe and healthy, and to continue to have some form of in-school learning, we had to create a schedule that I’m not entirely happy with. A lot of the schools are calling their pods the whole grade, so even if they are in different rooms, they are interacting and being exposed to numerous groups every day – one for French class, and one for their math class, and one for their science class, etc.
“We created a schedule where we are allowing for two cohorts, meaning every student can be with one group of 8-12  on Wednesday and one group of 8-12 on Thursday. Then they flip.
“There is English, Social Studies, Language and Art, and for some Art and Music, for 9th and 10th grades. To be in school for a full day and have just English, Social Studies and Language – which has to be asynchronous, because there was no way to create cohorts – the heterogeneous second cohort based on the languages the kids take means that kids feel like they’re coming to school for a whole day with very few classes.
“For Physical Education (sport), a whole group of pods can go out to a field, masked, and be together. We have health class for 9th graders. So, the health teacher teaches all five academic periods of the day – actually there are six on Thursday, because she can only teach one pod at a time.
“Our teachers are very tired because some of them are doing teaching one 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade class.  If you  figure there are two pods in each grade that make up, let’s say, a level of a class, then they’re teaching almost every period. We never leave the kids alone, there is always an adult in the room.
“We start late. We start about 9 a.m. I’m talking about only our in-school days, our three days on Zoom are self-explanatory, they’re just what you would imagine. The in-school days, there’s an optional session on the roof. “The arrival times for the entire school are very, very staggered. For the lower school and early childhood, they start around 8 a.m.
“Every parent or caregiver comes and stands six feet apart, there’s tape on the ground where everyone has to stand, and everyone’s masked. If anyone walks into the building and takes off their mask, literally, they get one warning, if that, especially in the high school.
“I think in the nursery school, they’re not masked, but starting in first-grade, perhaps kindergarten, they are masked.
“The kids are ecstatic to be in school.  I don’t know how. I look at them when I’m covering a class and I say, “You’re sitting here in the same room, some of the rooms without windows, all day long, with eight of your classmates. You can’t go up to his or her desk. You can’t really talk much while you’re eating.” They’re not supposed to be talking while they’re eating. I ask, “How are you feeling?” And all of them say, “We’re so happy to be here. We’re so happy to be here in person.” “Every student who walks into the building has their temperature taken and has to show their ID. They scan their ID, which will tell if they or their parents, really their parents, and fill out a form every day, which is a list of questions.  Did you have a fever this morning? Did you have a headache? Were you in contact with anyone who might have had COVID-19?  The teachers do the same and if you do not fill out the form, the parent gets called, and the child waits outside until the parent is called.  If a child has any symptoms, they may not come into school.
“For areas that are hot spots, students are told that if they have been in those areas, they have to get tested. Everyone is getting tested, faculty and students, when we are in school next week, to ensure everybody spent the weekend judiciously and carefully and that nothing changed.
“We’re very, very conservative compared to most other schools that we’re hearing about. The hardest thing is keeping everyone happy with the schedule and being able to cover every period.
“Last week, I had four teachers out. Why were they out? One teacher was out because their baby daughter had a fever. The second was out because their daughter had been exposed to someone in their school who tested positive. A third was out because she had a bad ankle. And the fourth was out because of a family event. She Zoomed in all her classes.
“So, each of those teachers is teaching a minimum of three periods over the day, but I have 32 pods going on in the school. We don’t have that many teachers, especially since we have four teachers who, because they are immuno-compromised, or live with an immuno-compromised person, are only teaching remotely, and their classes are always covered.
“Some of those teachers are so good!  I can think of a math teacher in particular. I know these kids would be focused, even if their teacher was only on the smart board, Zooming in. They know how to attach everything to their computers to bring the teacher into the room, but we do not leave rooms unattended. In the morning, when I’m outside, worrying about arrivals and making sure kids are masked, and keeping distance, they know how to get to their new classroom. I have somebody checking the floors to make sure there’s a faculty member in every class, or an assistant, or someone, in every room.
“We were getting a little tight with our 21 rooms in the high school, counting the labs. Now we’re in 32 rooms, 31 on one day, and 32 on another.
“Everyone is tired, especially division heads, and me, because I’m getting texts and emails on any given day to say, ‘So and so didn’t get their lunch,’ or, ‘So and so’s classroom’s not covered.’
“We’re not supposed to be using the elevators, although I have to say, I do use the elevators, but I’m trying also to get a little exercise, since there’s no exercise during the week, except going up and down the steps. It’s an enormous undertaking, and it has to be run well, and we all have to stick to the rules.
“It’s not fun. It’s like I keep saying, if I felt like this was going to end in January, or if I felt like I had created this incredibly brilliant schedule that was giving rich, academic days in school to the students, I could handle the fatigue and wearing the mask all day, and all of that, but this is going to last the whole year, probably, assuming we stay in school. I’ve already created a five-day Zoom schedule, if we have to revert to that.
“Overall, it’s working pretty well.  It’s really working pretty well in the sense that our students are really compliant. They’re really compliant! It’s just an enormous jigsaw puzzle that makes a joke of a thousand-piece puzzle. There are ten thousand pieces here that must be fitted together.
Somehow. you move one piece, you move another, you put one in the wrong place, and then you have to start all over again, to fix things. When I call each person up to pick up their lunch, I tell them to Purell [disinfect] their hands and take the lunch, and when they’re finished, I tell them to mask, and throw it out, and to Purell again.
“I do it because I’m following the rules, and I’m praying this is helping to make things work. I don’t know how I feel about it. I actually think something’s working because we’re still here and not all schools are working the same way.
“The biggest issue with high school is – we don’t know what these kids are doing when they leave school.  We’re very careful with dismissal time to make sure they’re not all gathering at Starbucks or on the corner.  I run up and down the street and say, ‘Guys, start walking home. Start going home!’ I don’t know what they’re going to do when they go home. Do they go into each other’s homes? Some parents are very strict and others are less strict.
“The hard thing for parents, I’m sure, is –  they look like mean bullies telling their kids,‘You’ve got to be masked if you’re with your friends, if you’re playing basketball, whatever you’re doing, please stay masked.’ And other parents do not care.
“Unless you’re willing to bring in only part of the school at a time, on certain days, so that kids can spread out, and then be taught in smaller pods, distanced, then it’s not going to work.”
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Can Israeli schools meet this high standard? Will they get the resources they need to open safely?  According to The Jerusalem Post,  “teachers and administrators have expressed apprehension that the Health Ministry has not yet provided them with a detailed outline for handling their classrooms in the shadow of coronavirus.” So – regrettably, I doubt it.

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com