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Plan for Israel's Next School Year: nationwide testing, COVID-19 antibodies

Israel's plan for the opening of the school year on September 1 calls for no special restrictions and classes will not be split into pods, even in hot spots, despite a recent rise in coronavirus cases attributed to the spread of the delta variant. The school year in ultra-Orthodox communities will begin on August 8.

The education and health ministries’ proposal provides no solution for students or parents who are at risk due to health issues, although high-risk students will still be obligated to attend classes. School principals have therefore been instructed to find solutions on a case-by-case basis and to the extent that it is possible. 

In August and September, nationwide testing for coronavirus antibodies will be carried out for all students and teachers, especially in the 5th and 6th grades. In addition, a pilot program will be instituted to limit students’ quarantine requirement to only 48 hours.

According to the plan, communities designated “red” or “orange,” based on their numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, will take action to seek out confirmed cases. According to the Health Ministry, there are currently two red and 55 orange cities and towns in Israel.

The Education Ministry said the proposal was formulated by Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton in coordination with the Health Ministry. The full details have not been publicly announced or provided to school principals. The plan is much less strict than last year's, when the beginning of the school year led to a major wave of infections, a closure of schools after about two weeks, and another lockdown. 

The Education Ministry hasn't received additional funding for additional staffing, preparing for remote learning, splitting up some classes into pods, or purchasing disinfection equipment, unlike the previous school year. The decision not to split classes is noteworthy, given its proven effectiveness last year in protecting from infections and quarantine. Third and fourth grade students seemed to be able to study five days a week in pods without any problems. 

Schools will only close in the event of a significant rise in infections, while towns that turn red or orange will implement rapid testing in schools. Education Ministry figures show a clear rise in infections in the education system. Two children with COVID-19 are currently hospitalized. Over the past month, in which schools hosted subsidized summer camps, infections soared significantly.

At the end of the last school year, 798 children and 50 school staff members in elementary schools were infected with COVID-19, a total of 848 confirmed cases. In that same period there were 12,500 students and teachers in isolation.

The subsidized camps started their activities in elementary schools and kindergartens on July 1. Meanwhile, very limited gatherings took place in junior high and high schools. A few days later, COVID-19 outbreaks appeared in a few schools, with a wave of infections among students.

Between June 29 and July 21, when the school summer camps ended, infections among children jumped by 282 percent to 3,055 confirmed cases; these children are still considered actively infected. However, many more students were infected and recovered.

Between these dates, infections among school staff soared by 470 percent, to 287 confirmed cases as of Sunday. About 70 schools closed as a result of significant infection, and the day before the end of the summer camp session 21 more kindergartens and schools were shuttered due to infections.

During the summer camps the number of confirmed infections among students increased by hundreds every day, while the number of students in isolation increased by the thousands a day. For example, there are currently about 30,000 students and teachers in isolation after exposure to confirmed COVID cases.

Between July 20 and July 21, some 4,500 more students were in quarantine. The Education Ministry figures indicate that most of the infections were detected in elementary school grades, where the subsidized summer camps were held, while kindergartens saw fewer cases.

Lior Dattel