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Israel to launch pilot COVID-testing program at schools in the hope of reducing the number of required quarantines for students

Pilot announced after "Operation Antigen 2" last week required testing before children return to school after the holidays

Young Israeli students arrive for their first day of school after the holidays, in Tel Aviv, Sept. 30, 2021. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

When Israeli schools welcomed back some 2 million students on Thursday morning after the nearly one-month break for the Jewish holidays in September, all returning students under 12, or over 12 but not vaccinated, were required to present a negative COVID test in order to enter school.

Without a negative test, or a certificate of vaccination or recovery, neither students nor teachers were allowed to enter the school grounds.

This large-scale “test” case is now being used as the basis for regular testing of students, according to a new government plan.

After Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tasked the Ministry of Education to find ways to keep students in schools – rather than in endless quarantines – the “green class” pilot is being expanded today to 300 classrooms. The program will allow COVID-exposed students to continue coming to school – as long as they get tested daily for one week.

Under the program, children will be tested at least once a week – some more often –depending on the infection rate in the city. Only students who test positive will be sent home. The others will have to test negative every day for a week in order to avoid quarantine.

To assist with this effort, the Education Ministry is considering arming parents with about two dozen testing kits each and asking them on a regular basis to test their children at home when they are experiencing COVID symptoms. The distribution of convenient home kits is meant to alleviate parents’ concerns about losing workdays if their child has to quarantine.

According to Channel 12, 30 million of these home tests are on their way to Israel.

A leading coronavirus statistician, Nadav Katz, predicts that there won’t be large numbers of children in isolation.

“Our analysis says things are indeed going down, and indicators show there is real decay in the current wave,” he said. “We expect schools to stay open. And the trend right now is there will be fewer kids going into quarantine, as things are in a downward spiral.”

However, Prof. Tomer Hertz of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba is less optimistic and believes the government “seems to be placing all of its bets on the booster vaccines without backing other strategies.”

“It’s safe to say there are going to be many, many infected kids, and I do not think COVID is going to decline rapidly,” Hertz said.

“They are thinking everything is open and the economy can function, but if there are massive school quarantines, that’s just not accurate as it can become, in reality, a sort of partial lockdown,” he added, as parents would miss work to be at home with their children.

While Hertz fully supports the government requiring home antigen COVID tests to be administered by parents on a regular basis, he still believes that more comprehensive, ongoing testing is needed at the schools.

Implementation of these rapid corona tests has already begun in some schools in recent weeks and will expand starting tomorrow to 18 more localities. According to this pilot, the friends of a student who is found to be positive for COVID can continue with the school routine and not go into isolation - provided they conduct rapid Corona tests daily for a week.

Last week some 1.4 million antigen tests (representing 81% of eligible children) were distributed for the nationwide back-to-school campaign dubbed “Operation Antigen 2.” An estimated 90% of students declared they took the test before going to school on Thursday.

According to Yigal Slovik, director-general of Israel’s Education Ministry, only .1% (or 8,000 students) tested positive.

“By not sending these children to school, it prevented the closure of about 1,000 classrooms and the isolation of as many as 30,000 students,” he said.

The current government mandate stipulates that if any student is discovered to have contracted the coronavirus, all classmates are forced into quarantine, which the pilot program is expected to address. Last week, approximately 100,000 Israeli students were stuck in quarantine due to exposure to virus carriers.

Also today, an estimated 1 million Israelis will lose their Green Passport because they have not received a COVID booster shot six months after getting the second vaccine dose or recovering from the virus itself. The Green Passport is only renewable with a booster shot.

The Teachers’ Union in Israel estimates that almost half of the nation’s teachers fall into this category. Without a valid Green Passport – which allows entry to certain venues and events that require proof of vaccination – the teacher is required to produce a negative test result, the health ministry announced last week.

Chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association, Ran Erez, sent a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett requesting a two-month extension to the new policy which would give teachers time to get their booster shots and become Green Pass-compliant.

“There are no decisions like this directed at any other sector in the country. It is a measure that harms Israeli teachers in a non-proportional way,” Erez wrote.

Government-supervised daycare facilities opened last week after a delay of several hours as caregivers protested staff shortages and poor pay.

Approximately 50,000 Israelis are currently confirmed to be COVID-positive compared to more than 80,000 people two weeks ago. New daily cases remain at 3,500 based on a three-day average, about 50% less than mid-September.

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The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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