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Jerusalem Mayor: ‘We’re Praying and Hoping for Healthy School Year’ (VIDEO REPORT)

Israeli leaders help kick off new school year under cloud of COVID-19 as 2.4 million students head back to class

Masks at the ready and backpacks in hand, hundreds of students filed in to the TALI Geulim Elementary School in Jerusalem on Tuesday for their first day of school.

With a red carpet rolled out for the occasion, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion greeted children and their parents to kick off the new year – the threat of the novel coronavirus permeating the air.

“First and foremost, the goal is for everyone to stay healthy and not to contract [COVID-19],” Lion told The Media Line ahead of the school’s reopening.

“It’s not easy,” he continued. “We’re talking about 275,000 students in this city. We’re praying, hoping, and doing everything to make it happen.”

Last spring, Jerusalem high school Gymnasia Rehavia became the site of a major coronavirus outbreak and was forced to shut down after more than 100 people fell ill with the virus. The school’s entire student body and staff were sent into quarantine as a result and the incident has served as a cautionary tale for other countries choosing to reopen schools during the global pandemic.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion believes that this time around educational institutions will able to avoid the same scenario from repeating itself. He added that the municipality had looked into the risks specific to schools and believed that most would be able to continue lessons as planned.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits the new Gesher elementary school, which opened for the first time, in Beit Shemesh, September 1, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“I expect the school year to go by peacefully,” Lion asserted. “We will be healthy and reach the end of the year healthy and whole.”

Balloons, songs and entertainers gave many schools reopening in Jerusalem an air of optimism and levity – a statement by educators and officials determined not to allow the pandemic to mar the day’s events. Across Israel, some 2.4 million students went back to class.

“This year, the challenge is for us to stay healthy,” Dana Gerson, principal of the TALI Geulim school, related to The Media Line. “Everything else we already know how to do very well. We’ll make sure to take care of whatever is under our control and also take common sense into account.”

For Gerson, maintaining a sense of routine for the 350 pupils at TALI Geulim is of the utmost importance, as is ensuring lessons move forward with as little disruption as possible.

“Children like to make new friends,” she said. “It’s true that this situation has affected some kids more than others.

“For children who don’t have a computer at home or fewer resources, or those who live in a single-parent household, sometimes there’s anxiety and worry,” Gerson continued. “We address these things too at this school. It’s not a big school so we know all of the students personally.”

First and foremost, the goal is for everyone to stay healthy and not to contract [COVID-19]. It’s not easy. We’re talking about 275,000 students in this city. We’re praying, hoping, and doing everything to make it happen

Elsewhere in the country, schools also reopened to fanfare and celebration. Dozens of street performers worked hard to boost the morale of elementary and middle school students in Tel Aviv, as Mayor Ron Huldai toured a number of schools to inaugurate 75,000 pupils returning to school across the city.

Tel Aviv-Yafo Mayor Ron Huldai tours a school in the city for the opening of the new school year. (Guy Yechiely)

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Gallant paid a visit to the Netaim school in Mevo Horon, located in the Binyamin Regional Council area in the West Bank.

However, it was not a festive first day of school for all.

While most schools opened as planned on September 1st after much deliberation and the threat of a Teachers Union general strike, Israel’s coronavirus cabinet at the last minute decided to keep schools in over 20 towns and cities shut. Overall, 332 schools and 716 kindergartens located in so-called red zones – where morbidity rates are high – remained closed due to the spread of the virus, according to the Education Ministry.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right) and Education Minister Yoav Gallant (left) attend a ceremony to mark the start of the 2020-2021 school year at the Netaim school in Mevo Horon, in the Binyamin Regional Council area, September 1, 2020. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

For those able to reopen as planned, social distancing markers were placed on the ground and mandatory mask wearing for children in grades four and above went into full effect.

Current Education Ministry directives allow for kindergarteners and children in grades one and two to continue going to class as normal, with no special measures in place. Grades three and four have been split into smaller groups of up to 18 students per class. Grades five to 12 have also been 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.

“I expect there will be a lot of new things this year,” grade six math teacher Letitia Meloul told The Media Line as students continued to file in at TALI Geulim in Jerusalem. “I hope we’ll have a lot of positivity and that we’ll be able to be socially active. Even with all the regulations, I hope we’ll really be friends and be able to be close to one another.”

Pandemic or not, youngsters entering the school in Jerusalem appeared to be excited by the prospects of making new friends and beginning a school year unlike any in recent memory.

“I’m excited because I’m starting grade one,” 6-year-old Sivan told The Media Line, smiling shyly as her father led her by the hand to class.

Principal Dana Gerson believes that ultimately adults will play an important role in the upcoming year, especially with regards to how children handle the challenges of the pandemic.

“If we as adults project panic and act like there’s a world war going on, then that’s one thing,” she said. “But if we make it clear that there is an issue and that we have to learn to live with it in a responsible way, then I believe that everything will be ok. This too will pass.”