Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers Sunday that school would resume as planned for fifth and sixth grade students later this week, and that grades 11-12 will follow them in hitting the books the week after.
Those grades will “open as planned, that won’t change,” Netanyahu said according to Hebrew media reports of remarks he made at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
The so-called coronavirus cabinet, a smaller forum of ministers tasked with forming virus policy, approved the step last week. The ministers are expected to meet on Monday to discuss further measures to ease the lockdown, after pushing the meeting back by a day.
During the cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party and alternate prime minister, complained that he had only learned of the coronavirus cabinet meeting being moved to Monday through the media.
Currently, grades 1-4 are back in class, with grades 5-6 expected to join them on Tuesday, and grades 11-12 to return to the classroom next Tuesday. Grades 7-10 are continuing distanced learning.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Sunday he supported a return to school for all grades in cities with low infection rates, but only if it is not in concert with other easing of coronavirus restrictions.
“I have never been against opening the education system. I have said, and I repeat, that probably nobody really cared about opening the whole education system because they always spoke about the great value of the education system, but in the same sentence they talked about commerce and malls and markets. We can’t have everything,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.
Health officials had previously raised objections to the swift return of schoolchildren to class as the school system was seen as a major contributor to the spike in cases after an initial lockdown earlier this year was lifted, and that led to the second closure in September.
Full school opening in low infection areas had been expected to go up for discussion on Sunday evening at a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet to discuss the government’s next steps on the coronavirus pandemic. However, the meeting has been delayed to Monday, apparently to allow more work to be done by ministries before ministers convene.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant has long pushed for a return of most kids to school. On Saturday evening he tweeted: “Millions of students must immediately return to school. In the long months of extended lockdown they are accumulating significant educational gaps and suffering from social loneliness.”
“The consequences of the damage from extended lockdown will be with these children for a long time,” he said. “We must not forget Israel’s future generation.”
Israel imposed a lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.
Data released by the Health Ministry on Sunday morning showed coronavirus transmission rates back on the rise and a spike in the percent of tests coming back positive
Israel’s basic reproduction number, or the rate of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, stood at 1.06 as of November 11 — a rate many experts believe is too high for the country to continue to ease restrictions.
Officials, led by Netanyahu and Edelstein, have warned that if the number of daily cases diagnosed is not brought back under control a third lockdown could be looming.