Schools to Reopen Despite Heavy Criticism

YERUSHALAYIM -
Illustration of an empty classroom in Yerushalayim on October 21 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The coronavirus cabinet decided on Monday to proceed with plans for the staggered reopening of school for first to fourth graders despite being lambasted as another example of the government’s inability to cope with the crisis.

The plan calls for the third and fourth grades to be divided into pods and resume studies five days a week from November 1, while first and second grades will be split into two groups that will alternate days of classroom schooling each three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning, as best they can.

Haim Bibas, the head of the national mayors union, called the decision “entirely ludicrous and disconnected,” according to Army Radio.

“In practice, the students in first and second grades won’t go back to class on Sunday. An entire generation is being lost,” said Bibas, who is also the mayor of Modiin and an observer in the coronavirus cabinet for the local authorities.

Bibas said he pleaded with the ministers not to make hasty decisions Sunday that would be rejected by parents or make it hard for them to return to work.

To remedy the situation, he proposed shifting some of the responsibility to local authorities. “The time has come for them to give us the authority and we will present plans,” he said.

The former Education Ministry director general, Shmuel Abuav, who resigned in June, also criticized the plan.

“The most complicated age for remote learning is first and second grades,” he said. “They should have brought back grades 1-3 in ‘capsules’ and have grades 4-12 learn in school for half the week,” he told Army Radio on Monday.

The decision not to do so may have been based on financial considerations. Leaks to Hebrew media from Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting quoted Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying the government cannot afford to split grades 1 and 2 into “capsules” or pods of fewer children.

Meanwhile, on Monday, after a seven-hour meeting, ministers in the coronavirus cabinet were leaning towards approval of the reopening of stores that do in-person business as early as next Sunday, according to media reports.

Though the proposal might have a majority, the Health Ministry is against it.

City officials on Monday lambasted the government’s decision to allow first and second grades to only reopen part-time starting next week, calling it a “ludicrous” decision that won’t enable parents of young children to go back to work.

Under the plan approved by ministers on Sunday evening, children in third and fourth grade will be divided into pods and resume studies five days a week from November 1, while those in first and second grade will be split into two groups that will alternate days and go to school only three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.

The Education Ministry had not planned on splitting first and second grades into pods and does not have the time or budget to double the number of teachers and instructional spaces, forcing the inelegant compromise to meet Health Ministry demands for smaller classes.

Haim Bibas, the head of the national mayors union, called the decision “entirely ludicrous and disconnected,” according to Army Radio.

Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week. The reopening of the school system on September 1 has been blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.

The move to gradually reopen the school system comes after the daily virus numbers have dropped considerably following five weeks of lockdown. With most households in Israel having two working parents, getting the economy back on its feet is directly linked to having schools open for children to attend during the day.

Bibas said he pleaded with the ministers not to make hasty decisions Sunday on the reopening of schools that would be rejected by parents or undermine their ability to return to work.

He also urged the government to give local authorities greater powers on the issue.

“The time has come for them to give us the authority and we will present plans,” he said.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Health Ministry officials had proposed moving responsibility for finding solutions for splitting the classes into the willing hands of local authorities, but the Education Ministry rejected the idea.

Orit Arnon, a Tel Aviv principal, told Army Radio that the Education Ministry should “give us, the people on the ground, the independence to do what is best for the kids. Not impose strict guidelines on us.”

The former Education Ministry director general, Shmuel Abuav, who resigned in June, also criticized the plan.

“The most complicated age for remote learning is first and second grades,” he said. “They should have brought back grades 1-3 in ‘capsules’ and have grades 4-12 learn in school for half the week,” he told Army Radio on Monday.

Leaks to Hebrew media from Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying the government cannot afford to split grades 1 and 2 into “capsules” or pods of fewer children.

The plan to split grades 3 and 4 into pods had previously been approved and funded. However, the Education Ministry said implementing that solution in grades 1 and 2 as well, as the Health Ministry demanded, would cost an additional NIS 5.3 billion ($1.57 billion) and require five weeks of preparation including the hiring of 13,000 new employees. The Finance Ministry opposed any plan that would require additional funding.

The decision on first and second grades splitting time was later adopted as a compromise.

Meanwhile, on Monday, after a seven-hour meeting, the ministers approved the reopening of hairdressers, beauty salons, and other businesses that receive customers, but only one at a time, as of next Sunday.