‘Confusing and Complicated’: Israel Scrambles Ahead of School Year
With classes set to start on September 1, educators warn that government guidelines continue to leave many questions unanswered
Just a day ahead of the new school year, Israeli educators are scrambling to make sense of government guidelines that have been put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and allow for in-person learning to proceed with as little disruption as possible.
Current Education Ministry directives will allow for kindergarteners and children in grades 1 and 2 to continue going to class as normal, with no special measures in place. Grades 3 and 4 will, meanwhile, be split into smaller groups of up to 18 students per class. Grades 5-12 will also be divided into groups of up to 18 students, and will notably attend school physically at least twice a week, with the rest of the time devoted to online lessons.
According to the framework, wearing a mask will be mandatory at all times for children in grades 4 and above. In addition, students will be required to eat at their desk to prevent crowding in cafeterias.
However, exactly how educators are expected to enforce the government’s stringent regulations has stoked confusion.
“We received a number of guidelines over the summer, and each time they were different,” Maya Givon-Cohen, principal at the Tel Aviv School of Environmental, Social and Nature Studies, told The Media Line. “We still have many questions regarding these guidelines…. Things were not completely clear.”
We received a number of guidelines over the summer, and each time they were different
Some 650 students from grades 1 through 10 are expected to attend the school this fall. With classes divided into smaller groups, or “capsules,” Givon-Cohen has rushed to fill in the manpower gaps and determine how to increase teacher salaries. According to her, the Education Ministry has provided little in the way of answers.
“How are we expected to pay the teachers?” Givon-Cohen asked. “What kind of budget do we have? Can we employ teachers who are completing internships? What kinds of teachers can we hire and where do we find them?”
While smaller classes are expected to benefit students, it means that educators will be forced to work overtime and divide their time between additional classes.
“In my view, this way of working is very complicated, especially for new educators,” Givon-Cohen asserted. “Keeping these capsules separate is extremely difficult. During recess, we have to keep the students separated, the space has to be divided, bathrooms have to be divided, etc.”
Among the many challenges the new directives present, she underlined, is exactly how teachers can prevent students from different capsules from interacting with one another before class, during recess and after school. Due to a lack of space, maintaining at least six feet in distance will be an impossible task.
Moreover, schools have yet to receive instructions on what to do with educators who are at high-risk of developing complications from the coronavirus due to age or underlying health issues.
“[Last school year], we had three coronavirus cases: two teachers and one student got sick,” she said.
“Preventing an outbreak is impossible in any place, but if we manage the school properly and maintain the health guidelines even if someone gets infected, I should be able to isolate cases when they appear. There’s no need to shut down the whole education system,” she said.
“I think it’s very important for the students to be physically present in school for their mental and emotional development,” Givon-Cohen added. “The pressure on educators will be very big.”
Inna Saltzman, deputy director-general of the Education Ministry, told The Media Line that despite the confusion, the school year is slated to open on September 1, as planned.
“We still believe there is a need for in-person learning, and there is a need for rapport between a student and their teacher, as well as a student and their class,” Saltzman said.
We still believe there is a need for in-person learning, and there is a need for rapport between a student and their teacher, as well as a student and their class
Roughly 2.4 million students are heading back to classes, with the majority – grades 5 through 12 – expected to study online for the most part. Of these, 229,000 students do not have a computer at home, according to government figures.
In order to address the shortfall, the Education Ministry recently allocated a budget worth NIS 4.2 billion (approximately $1.25 billion) to fund the purchase and distribution of computers and other electronic equipment.
“From September, we are going to be distributing [these devices],” Saltzman said. “We’re talking about 144,000 computers and other electronic equipment that will be given out in a few phases over the first months of the new school year.”
In addition, she added, the ministry has allocated enough funding to hire roughly 13,000 new teachers and teaching assistants.
“If there’s a confirmed case in a school, there will be a protocol to check it quickly and return to routine as soon as we figure out where the source of infection was,” she explained.
Computer equipment aside, questions remain as to how high-risk students and teachers will move forward with classes. In fact, the Teachers’ Union has threatened to go on strike to protest a lack of guidelines on how to protect educators from contracting the virus and has demanded that at-risk teachers be allowed to work remotely.
The Media Line reached out to the union for comment but has yet to receive a response.
At the higher education level, where classes are set to begin in mid-October, studies are up in the air as well.
Prof. Milette Shamir, incoming vice president for International Affairs at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that while international students continue to show interest in attending on-campus classes, some are hesitating to move forward with their plans.
“Many students are sitting on the fence and waiting to see what kind of instruction will take place on campus and what the visa situation will be,” Shamir said.
Many students are sitting on the fence and waiting to see what kind of instruction will take place on campus and what the visa situation will be
Those who do decide to travel to Israel for studies will be required to arrive early and self-quarantine for two weeks in the university’s dormitories before heading to class. Though not yet finalized, Tel Aviv University is also hoping to offer a flexible learning model this fall.
“For the international program, our plan at the moment is to have a hybrid model where a lot of classes will be held physically on campus, specifically classes that are smaller than 50 students,” Shamir said, adding that those who feel uncomfortable with attending classes in person or who are unable to travel will be allowed to take the same classes online.
Unfortunately, this model will not be an option for the rest of Tel Aviv University’s 30,000 students. According to Shami, the institution yet to decide on what kind of policy to implement for Israelis.
“There are all kinds of interesting concepts that are being considered that would allow for some physical presence of students on campus because we do value face-to-face interaction very much and the university does not want to come up with a model that is purely online,” she said.