As U.S. Schools Reopen, Israel’s Mistakes Offer Cautionary Tale

Israel has gone from being a model of Covid-19 containment in March to suffering one of the world’s highest per-capita rates of new infections. One explanation -- especially relevant as the academic year dawns -- is that it may have reopened schools too quickly and imprudently.

Experts are divided on the role schools played in the resurgence. But they have advice for the U.S. and others: promote testing and contact tracing, use a hybrid of digital and in-person learning, use local solutions such as holding outdoor classes where possible -- and don’t do it the way Israel did the first time.

“There are many things that should have been done and none of this was done,” said Eli Waxman, a physicist who leads the team advising Israel’s national security council on its response to the coronavirus.

As U.S. Schools Reopen, Israel’s Mistakes Offer Cautionary Tale

Waxman said he recommended protocols like placing separators between desks and sending students on school buses in small groups, but little of that happened and it didn’t take long before students and teachers got sick and many schools were once again closed.

When Israeli schools reopen again in September, there will be a new plan, the education ministry says. Only pupils in kindergarten through second grade, who are considered the least susceptible to infection, will have regular-sized classes of about 30 every day.

Third and fourth graders will have classes capped at 18 pupils who will remain together in class and during breaks to reduce the risk of spread to others. Older students will also have the smaller-sized groups but learn mostly remotely, coming to school about twice a week.

Some 13,000 new teachers will be hired to enable the smaller class sizes, buildings near schools may be used for extra space, and officials will mandate rules including desks be spaced 2 meters apart and masks worn for older children.

As U.S. Schools Reopen, Israel’s Mistakes Offer Cautionary Tale

Reopening schools is obviously crucial to student development but equally vital to economic recovery, since when children are stuck at home parents are stymied from working.

In examining what caused the severe second wave in the spring, one study from Israel’s Health Ministry showed educational institutions were the top location for spreading infections outside the home, accounting for about 10% of tracked cases.

At the same time, with the country mired in economic crisis and joblessness above 21%, an analysis by the Bank of Israel found school closures cost 2.6 billion shekels ($763 million) per week, since 400,000 households had an employed parent who had to stay home with kids.

Here’s how Israel built and squandered its lead: On March 12, as total virus cases in Israel rose to 100, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shut down schools as part of a broad closure that ground life to a near total halt and capped the outbreak. In late April, as infections slowed, he turned to a gradual reopening.

On May 3, the first wave of mostly younger students restarted in-person learning. Initially schools limited class size with kindergarteners only in school half the week. But amid pressure from parents and politicians, the entire system fully reopened later in May and restrictions were lifted.

Teachers As Babysitters

“It felt like we were being called up to babysit because parents had to go back to work,” said Rivi Zelenko, a teacher at a boarding school in a northern suburb of Tel Aviv.

In late May, while much of Europe and the U.S. were still under lockdown, Israel removed almost all restrictions. Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods reopened synagogues, large weddings resumed, and the health minister temporarily lifted a requirement to wear masks in schools and outdoors.

It all culminated in Netanyahu telling Israelis to go out and “have fun.”

It wasn’t very long before cases surged, and officials started re-closing schools. At one well-known high school in Jerusalem, all 1,400 students and staff had to enter quarantine as cases mounted to more than 100, stemming from a single teacher, according to local media. Parties also caused problems, with one bash in a central city leading to dozens of cases. New daily cases rose from just five on May 24 to more than 2,300 in late July.

Those missteps mean there’s skepticism over the next reopening, even though it is being organized more methodically. Among the dilemmas: whether the entire country is ready for widespread online learning and if older students will be spending too much time at home. “There are many holes in the plan to open in September,” said Merom Shiff, head of a national parents group.

“The lesson is not that you cannot open schools,” said Hagai Levine, a Hebrew University epidemiologist and chair of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “The lesson is that you should probably open schools but do it in a careful, measured, controlled manner.”

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