Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is preparing an order that will enable the health minister to bypass the education minister and instruct that COVID-19 vaccinations be administered in schools, even during study hours, according to a report on Tuesday.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has clashed with other government officials over the administration of the shots in schools to children over 12 years old. She is insisting that immunizations not be given during school hours, a position that would hobble an effective vaccination program in the education system. Israel has regularly performed other vaccine drives within schools.
Public health laws empower the health minister to provide health services inside schools, something Horowitz has recently stressed as he challenged Shasha-Biton over the vaccines. However, the law specifying which medical services should be provided in schools has not been updated to include the coronavirus vaccine, according to the report by the Haaretz newspaper.
To get around the issue, the Justice Ministry is preparing a special order that will grant Horowitz the right to instruct that COVID-19 vaccines be given to children whose parents consent, the report said.
Justice Ministry officials are of the opinion that Shasha-Bitan is not authorized to prevent students from getting the shots during school hours if their parents agree, Haaretz reported.
The order is expected to be presented to Horowitz in the coming days.
Despite their divide on the vaccinations, Horowitz and Shasha-Biton did agree Monday on a plan under which students attending schools in so-called “red cities” — those with the worst virus outbreaks on the Health Ministry’s color-coded scale — will resort to remote learning if less than 70 percent of students in a class have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID, or passed a positive serological test for antibodies. Mandelblit also supports the plan, which would apply to grades 8 and up.
However, the Justice Ministry on Monday told the government that another key element of its plan to enable reopening schools on September 1 cannot be implemented, Haaretz reported.
The framework for operating schools during the pandemic envisions only granting entry for vaccinated or recovered students or those showing a negative virus test. However, the Justice Ministry officials found there are legal difficulties in denying children education just because their parents refuse to let them be vaccinated or take a virus test.
Haaretz noted that during a 2019 measles outbreak Mandelblit approved measures that included denying entry to schools to pupils who were not vaccinated, and providing schools with information on students who were not immunized. As a result, hundreds of students were kept out of schools, according to the report.
The latest development followed reports of a fresh dust-up in the cabinet over Shasha-Biton’s refusal to allow vaccination of high schoolers during school hours.
According to Hebrew media reports, during a cabinet meeting over Zoom, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appeared to grow frustrated at Shasha-Biton’s refusal to use school hours to administer the COVID vaccine, despite the fact that most other vaccination drives are conducted through schools during class hours.
“You’re not from the UN,” he reportedly said on the Zoom call, using a Hebrew expression that means one shouldn’t be neutral on the subject being discussed. According to some accounts, he pounded his desk as he spoke. “Serological tests are nice, but they’re not what’s going to save us. What will save us is only vaccinations, and I demand that you get under the stretcher” – another Hebrew expression that means to do one’s part for the team.
“It’s unthinkable that you don’t understand that it’s your responsibility just as much as the Health Ministry’s,” Bennett was said to have chided Shasha-Biton and other education officials on the call.
Health Minister Horowitz reportedly joined Bennett in criticizing the education minister. “‘Creative solutions’ is all well and good, but only vaccinations will ensure the school year opens,” he said.
According to the reports, Shasha-Biton agreed that schools could use their resources to encourage students to vaccinate, but said she feared that allowing vaccination during school hours would put the schools in the middle of a decision she characterized as divisive.
In a statement to the media, Bennett’s office denied that the tone was angry, but did not deny the substance of the reported debate. “Not every exchange that happens in [cabinet] discussions is a confrontation,” Bennett’s statement said. “The prime minister and the education minister are working in cooperation to open the school year safely, while protecting the health of Israel’s children.”
On Tuesday, Bennett refused to commit to opening schools nationwide on September 1 as scheduled, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
“That decision we will make in the next week, according to the situation with the pandemic,” Bennett tells a reporter from Channel 13 news when asked about the slated start of schools.
More than 8,700 Israelis tested positive for COVID Monday, a figure not seen in Israel since early February. There are currently 946 Israelis hospitalized with COVID, 579 in serious condition, and 97 on ventilators.
Currently, 27.9% of 12-15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, while among those aged 16-19, 68.6% have received both vaccine doses, according to Health Ministry figures.