Coronavirus: Israel's teachers should be vaccinated first - opinion

While we applauded our doctors and nurses, we did not clap our hands at the balconies for our teachers.

TEACHERS CALL FOR financial help from the government, at a demonstration in Tel Aviv in April. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
TEACHERS CALL FOR financial help from the government, at a demonstration in Tel Aviv in April.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Education and learning have always been at the heart of the Jewish people. “Train up a child the way he should go,” says the biblical verse in the book of Proverbs. “Why is tonight different?” inquires the youngest child of a family at the outset of the Passover feast. It would, therefore, come as no surprise that Israel is now preparing to vaccinate all of its teachers over the course of three days. After healthcare professionals and the elderly, teachers are the next in line.
The Israeli vaccination operation is a source of world praise and local pride. More than one-fifth of the population already received their first vaccination, aiming to reach herd protection within a couple of months. As for education, during three circuit breaker lockdowns, school facilities shut down. However, in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, rabbis instructed to violate the law and to maintain in-school learning, stating that education is key for survival and as important as life itself.
Beneath this almost romantic surface lies a muddled reality. A year ago, schools closed instantly and the teaching practice entered our homes through the computer screens. Some parents were critical of the quality they witnessed, while others admired the commitment of teachers and the complexity of teaching. Many expected quick reopening of schools, even at the expense of pre-planned vacation days. They were concerned of the growing social, emotional and learning gaps of their children. However, the teachers’ unions rejected the offer.  
Soon it became clear that while we applauded our doctors and nurses, we did not clap our hands at the balconies for our teachers. While air force planes flew over our hospitals during Independence Day, teachers were not saluted, nor were they invited to light a torch at the Mount Herzl ceremony.  When newspaper headlines and op-eds announced that “online learning failed,” voices started to speak about schools as merely babysitters and questioned the need for public education in the future.
These voices were not gaining momentum, because education is deeply rooted in our tradition. Almost 8% of our GDP is dedicated to education and the budget of the Education Ministry is as high as of the Defense Ministry. Parents are actively involved in their children’s learning. They pay for private tutoring, register their kids to summer camps and drive them in the afternoons to extracurricular enrichment programs. Even when the international PISA tests reveal our low achievement and huge disparities, we do not give up on education.
However, when the current crisis hit hard on our central education system, a vacuum emerged. This vacuum was soon filled by the local administration of schools. Municipalities and school networks took initiative and encouraged their principals and teachers to come up with creative solutions. They forged small learning groups and stopped covering the curriculum superficially. Instead, they decided to focus only on the most important content, to dive deep so that their students think profoundly and apply their knowledge rigorously.
It was expected of several municipalities to be the pioneers in vaccinating their teachers. The mayors of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan joined hands with local hospitals and invited their teachers to the vaccination facility. The central government reacted with disapproval, however, when the unions declared that teachers will not return in schools before they are vaccinated, the government decided to take leadership with a nationwide endeavor to vaccinate the teachers.  
In a recent press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that by the coming Passover Seder, we will all be able to reunite with our families and celebrate the holiday together. He said, “when children will ask, ‘Why is tonight different?’ the overwhelming answer will be: ‘now everything is different.’” How much different will it be, no one is able to predict, as Israel enters yet another cycle of general elections.
Education will face a similar challenge. Will we be nostalgic and return to our old habits, or will we have the courage and wisdom to trust our teachers and allow municipalities to lead from the middle? If we are wise, by vaccinating our teachers first, we may be able to leverage the opportunity and create a national education program that will provide them with the safety and support they need in order to secure the future of our children.
The writer is the executive director of the Eddie and Jules Trump Family Foundation.