Grades 5-10 stay in school as Knesset education panel rejects lockdown closure

The Knesset Education Committee on Sunday rejected government regulations that would have kept students in grades 5-10 at home for remote learning during a national lockdown aimed at curbing coronavirus infection rates.

The lockdown, the country’s third since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, was set to begin at 5 p.m. Sunday evening. Although intended to be just two weeks with an option to extend, health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month.

Under the terms for the lockdown proposed by the government, preschools, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12 were to have a full day of classes as usual, but grades 5-10 were to stay at home and use distance learning instead.

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However, the Knesset Education Committee convened on Sunday and voted to overturn the regulations, thereby keeping all students in the classroom.

Illustration of an empty classroom at Cramim school in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem on October 21 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government now has 24 hours to issue fresh regulations or the existing orders, approved by the cabinet on Thursday, will automatically be canceled — a senior Health Ministry official told Channel 13 news that the regulations would be resubmitted.

At the Sunday meeting, committee chair Blue and White MK Ram Shefa, whose Knesset vote last week was key in toppling the government and sending Israel to its fourth elections in two years, declared that the panel would do everything it could to keep all students in the classroom.

“There is no reason in the world that children in grades 5-10 should stay at home for a month,” he said.

Shefa said those grades, who have already spent months this year with distance learning, were “paying a heavier price” than necessary.

“Unlike previous occasions, we have the possibility to cancel the clause that is preventing them from learning [in the classroom],” Shefa said.

Blue and White party member Ram Shefa at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Before the final vote, Shefa left the committee room to consult with his party’s leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Channel 12 news reported. Gantz was said to have given his approval for the ministerial decision to be overturned.

Before the vote Efrat Aflalo, head of the education department at the Health Ministry, cautioned that any relaxing of the restrictions would lead to a longer lockdown.

“Every decision made here will influence the length of the lockdown,” she said, warning that not approving the regulations would pose a serious danger.

Opposition MK Merav Michaeli of the Labor party countered that the damage to students was “unreasonable.”

Senior Education Ministry official Aryeh Mor told the meeting that most of the infections in the education system were currently in yeshivas and boarding schools in the ultra-Orthodox community, whereas the situation in the general population has stabilized over the past two weeks.

“Most of the exceptional events are in the ultra-Orthodox community in the yeshivas — some in supervised educational institutions and some in unsupervised,” Mor said.

At the meeting, Israel Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben-David threatened that her organization will declare a labor dispute if all its members are not swiftly vaccinated as part of the country’s mass inoculation program.

The vaccination drive, which began last week, started with medical workers and then moved on to those aged over 60.

Screen capture from video of Secretary-general of the Israel Teachers’ Union Yaffa Ben-David. (YouTube)

“It is inconceivable that pedagogic workers who are on the frontline will not be vaccinated,” Ben-David said. “The teachers are terribly afraid.”

She urged the creation of a special separate vaccination program for teachers, where education workers could be quickly inoculated without waiting in line.

However, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told the Ynet news site on Sunday that there currently weren’t enough vaccinations available for the program to be immediately extended to teachers.

“There is no approval for this at this stage and there are not enough vaccines for this stage,” he said in response to reports that some hospitals planned to vaccinate educational staff. “It will take at least another week until teachers are vaccinated. Please do not promise vaccines to groups that haven’t been prioritized. [Vaccines] are a national resource.”

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modiin on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Education Ministry has been pushing back against the Health Ministry demands to close the education system and the subject was reportedly one of the most hotly debated topics on the agenda as the cabinet met to decide on lockdown measures.

An initial plan to not only cancel in-person classes for grades 5-10 but to also close preschools and the other grades at 1 p.m. each day was dropped amid fury from parents who said it wouldn’t allow them to work sufficient hours.

Criticism of the idea grew after reports said there was no epidemiological justification for the restriction. Rather, it was made merely to “create a sense of lockdown” among the general public, rather than business as usual.

Schools were shuttered entirely during the previous two lockdowns in April and September, which succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back. The school system was blamed for the resurgence in infections.

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