Every fall, the Israeli school year begins on September 1, unless the day falls on a Saturday. This year will be no different, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced over the weekend.
“We are working in conjunction with the health minister and education minister on a safe plan for the opening of the school year in order to allow the education system to prepare in an orderly and responsible manner,” the prime minister said.
Dr. Tammy Hoffman, director of education policy at the Israel Democracy Institute, emphasized to The Media Line the importance of moving back to in-person teaching due to the numerous difficulties associated with remote learning.
“A lot of kids, especially those with social and emotional problems, were not given the precise attention that they needed. And I think that all schools, in addition to other things, are an arena for social connection and interrelations, and you can’t do that online only,” she said.
Hoffman also stressed the disparity in experiences produced by online learning due to a range of social and economic factors. The OECD already ranked Israel last among member nations in terms of disparities in education, she explained, adding that Arab schools, Bedouin schools and places in the Jewish geographical periphery were worst hurt by remote learning.
“In COVID, the same socioeconomic groups that [already] had less access to computers and all the technological infrastructure, now it became really a problem,” she said.
Daily COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in Israel, currently standing at 25% of the peak and rising. This represents a 12% increase in new daily cases from July 25.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz have been at odds over protective measures such as the reimplementation of splitting students into “pods” or “capsules” and the requirement that shot-refusers undergo frequent testing. Bennett assured the public that “the government is working in full coordination, with divergent opinions, and that is okay.”
Hoffman told The Media Line that the capsules system was “one of the major things that can transform education in Israel, and the fact that we’re not going back to capsules as a whole is really a shame, because it could be an opportunity to really change and transform the pedagogy.”
The government’s capsule system significantly limited class sizes to reduce the spread of infection, also making it easier for teachers to focus on individual students.
Rumors of conflict within the government were partially confirmed on Wednesday when Shasha-Biton said she was against the idea of vaccinating youngsters at school.
“We are talking about children who for a year and a half sat at home and are in emotional distress. It’s [vaccinating children in school] a crime as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
Prof. Doron Melamed, a specialist in immunology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, disagrees.
“We have to find ways to increase the number of vaccinated people by encouraging people to do this, by explanations, by providing trips for vaccinations, especially the young,” he told The Media Line.
Approximately 1.1 million Israelis over the age of 12, and so eligible for vaccination against COVID-19, have yet to accept inoculation.
Melamed pointed out that mandatory vaccinations, carried out by school authorities, have plenty of precedent. “I think the vaccination needs to be brought into the schools, like they do for mandatory vaccines. I think this needs to be the same,” he said.
Many parents are reluctant to have their children inoculated since at their age they are highly unlikely to develop severe disease if they catch the virus.
Israel has been offering immunization to all 12- to 15-year-olds since June 6, based on the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine. A spokesperson from the Health Ministry told The Media Line the government will consider immunizing younger age groups when that is approved by international regulators.
Still, Melamed said that there is no need to vaccinate children indiscriminately.
“One thing that also needs to be taken into consideration is that a large proportion of the young population was infected in the past, and was asymptomatic,” he said. Some kind of serological study must be carried out among the young population to see what proportion of them has antibodies, Melamed said.
Some experts are apprehensive that Israel will be in the midst of a fourth wave of infection on September 1.
Yet 13-year-old David, an American-born Jerusalemite about to start eighth grade, is relatively unphased. “I’m kind of nervous, but it will be fine, I’ll get used to it,” he said.
The Media Line asked David if he was worried about the safety measures that will be in place when he returns to the classroom.
“I’d be happy if there were none!” he laughed, before explaining, “I just don’t like wearing a mask, I don’t like not being able to go places.”
This was a sentiment shared by Miri, a 24-year-old resident of Jerusalem whose son will be attending his first year of public school in September.
“I was nervous in the beginning, actually, because everyone got sick. But now I know that they are really keeping our kids safe in the place my son’s going,” she said.
Hoffman postulated that with the school reopening looming, now would be a good time to consider how Israel’s education system can be improved.
“You can think about schools and learning, and there are schools that are doing that. There are schools that think about areas of learning, and not only in the classroom. They think about the outdoors, parks and museums, places in nature and community facilities. So, you can be creative and think about the entire schedule of schools with a different paradigm,” she said.
Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.