Mayors push plan to reopen all school grades by March 1; health minister opposed

A group of mayors on Monday presented government ministers with a plan to resume in-person learning next week for all grades.

The proposal by the Federation of Local Authorities would see grades 7-10 return to school on March 1. Students in those grades are the last to remain at home, studying remotely, as part of the pandemic rules. The government has barred them from classrooms until at least March 9

The plan would only apply to schools in “green” and “yellow” areas with low infection rates, along with some “orange” localities exempted from lockdown restrictions, according to Hebrew media reports.

It also proposes allowing in-person learning in high infection areas for children whose parents have received COVID-19 vaccines, Channel 12 news reported. Teaching staff would not be required to be vaccinated.

Haim Bibas, mayor of Modiin and chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who heads the Federation of Local Authorities, told the network that deliberations on the plan were ongoing and that no agreement had been reached with the government.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein issued a statement stressing that no agreements had been reached and expressing opposition to moving up the return of the middle schoolers and high school freshman and sophomores.

He said more time must pass “to see the consequences in terms of morbidity of opening large parts of the education system and commerce.”

Schools have been largely shuttered in Israel for much of the past year.

Also Monday, the head of the Association of Secondary School Teachers in Israel responded to an announcement by numerous cities that they will open middle and high schools, in a rebellion against government orders, saying it was “irresponsible.”

The city mayors had decided to “take the law into their own hands and coerce the teachers and principals to violate the law,” Ron Erez said, taking the position that the Health Ministry should decide the issue.

He said the union will only operate according to ministry instructions.

Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben David, who represents elementary school teachers, has also opposed the cities’ plan, as has the Center for Local Government, the country’s main organization of mayors.

The cities of Rehovot, Petah Tikva, and Ashdod on Monday all backed down from the threat, the Haaretz daily reported.

Edelstein warned that mayors or principals who restart studies will face enforcement of the rules.

Fifth-grade students return to school in Efrat, February 21, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)

On Sunday, grades 5-6 and 11-12 were permitted to resume in-person classes in low-infection cities or medium-infected ones with high rates of vaccination. Kindergartens and grades 1-4 have previously opened in cities designated as low-infection “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates.

The loosening of rules came amid a continued decline in morbidity, particularly among high-risk groups, which is largely being credited to Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign.

Infection rates among children and school reopenings are a central concern during Israel’s third-wave virus outbreak. Children represent a larger proportion of infections than earlier in the pandemic, presumably due to the new virus variants and the fact that a significant share of adults have been vaccinated.

The vaccine has not yet been approved for children under 16, although Israel has vaccinated dozens who suffer specific COVID-19 risk factors. No serious side effects have been reported.

On Saturday, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said that Israel planned to also vaccinate children once the vaccine was authorized for them, but did not give a timeline.

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