In the most significant move yet in Israel's exit from a national lockdown that began on Sept. 18, some 500,000 children were allowed on Sunday to start school — again — as the Ministry of Education opened grades 1-4.
This school year only lasted two weeks on site before Israel declared a national lockdown in order to control surging COVID infections. The start of the lockdown coincided with the start of the fall holidays and has lasted six weeks so far. Children learned online during that time and those in grades 5 through 12, plus universities will continue to do so for now.
The schools reopened this morning under stringent measures that require students and staff to wear masks all day and learn in classes of up to 18 students only. That requirement basically doubled the number of classes throughout the country as most Israeli classrooms are normally comprised of 30 children or more. Schools have had to recruit part-time staff and specialty teachers to help manage the extra classrooms.
The reopening of elementary grades comes two weeks after preschools and kindergartens were allowed to resume.
Exiting the lockdown fully is scheduled to take place over a span of four months with each successive phase being considered for reopening only after measuring infections rates two weeks after the previous phase.
Israel’s positivity rate of coronavirus tests has remained steady at 3 percent and below in the past two weeks, the lowest it has been since June.
But while the lockdown succeeded in controlling the spread of the infection, it has paralyzed the economy. The cost of the continued restrictions on the economy is estimated at $673 million a week, according to Finance Ministry chief economist Shira Greenberg.
Small business owners and merchants protested last week when their segment was not considered for reopening this week and have threatened to open against regulations.
“Do not make us violate the regulations intentionally!" threatened the I Am Shulman movement, an umbrella group for small businesses, Walla News reported. "We are giving the government 24 hours to think about it and to change their delusional decision."
Meanwhile, a chain of malls announced it intends to open this week against regulations and would begin collecting rent from this month. BIG CEO Hay Galis wrote a letter to store owners reminding them he did not collect fees during the two shut downs
“In the first lockdown we carried the stretcher on our back, alone. In the second lockdown, once more we got under the stretcher in September and October, again completely alone," he wrote. “When most of you received support and compensation… we did not receive a single shekel for this period, neither from the state nor you."
Galis slammed the government's handling of the pandemic.
“The government simply does not understand the intensity of the damage,” he said. “This time we are fed up. We are sick of the feeling that we are being turned from upright people into suckers.”
Along with schools, guest houses, salons and one-on-one activities such as driving lessons and personal training, were able to resume business on Sunday.
Schools will remain shut in two Arab towns that are presently under lockdown due to high infection rates.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now said he is now willing to enforce local lockdowns on cities that have high infection rates — two months after refusing to do so in ultra-Orthodox cities when that idea was proposed by the coronavirus committee. At the time, ultra-Orthodox cities were among the worst rates. The ultra-Orthodox comprise a large bloc of Netanyahu's coalition.
“I will not hesitate to suggest to the cabinet to shut down such a city,” he said. “To cordon it off. No matter what segment of the population it is.”