Israel is not accustomed to lagging behind on any of its injection campaigns, but even the carrot-and-stick method of pushing the COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 appears not to be working as well as the government had hoped.
Twice this week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett repeated his latest message: “Vaccines protect us from serious illness – and quarantine – and the public understands that.”
Let me repeat that: “…and quarantine.” Wink, wink.
Promises of “green classrooms” and avoiding the dreaded quarantines that send children to remote learning were meant to encourage parents to vaccinate their children. But this is not reflected in the numbers.
At least not yet.
The in-school vaccine campaign was supposed to be a tool to up the numbers in the 5- to 11-year-old demographic hovering at less than 9%. Talk of vaccinating this age group has all but vanished from the news.
One elementary school principal told me that the parents of only 45 of 350 students in the school signed the permission slip for their children to be vaccinated.
This principal further said that Ministry of Education officials were unsatisfied with these numbers and criticized her and other directors in a recent meeting for not doing more to advance vaccination at schools.
“What am I supposed to do – offer them a treat? Offer money?” the principal said. “It’s up to the parents if they want to get their children vaccinated. I can’t force anyone to vaccinate their children. This is not part of my job description.”
This morning, I took my own kids to school on “vaccination day” to check it out. Three women from the Ministry of Health wheeled in a small cooler of vaccines. I watched as they set up shop in a small room outside the fourth-grade classroom. I asked the nurse if she was planning to distribute treats or “I got vaccinated” bracelets to the children who get jabbed, as the clinics do. She said they only had stickers.
Understanding that the situation has the potential to be divisive, the school’s principal told me that she has instructed the teachers to avoid classroom discussions about who is getting vaccinated and who has a Green Passport (some have one after recovering from COVID). The principal also asked the nurses there today to not distribute those stickers which would set apart the children who got a vaccine from those who did not. Not all principals are like her though.
Our principal – and many others around Israel – are watching unfold in their schools what the government set in motion months ago. Recall what Bennett said in September in leaked recordings reported by Israeli media:
“I want the parents of those who vaccinated their children to put pressure on the parents who did not vaccinate,” he was quoted as saying. “I want the parents to compete with each other. Let them fight.”
Indeed, they are.
Parents that have vaccinated their children, in the hopes of avoiding quarantines, are upset when the entire class must learn remotely, which happens in some cases. They were promised in-school learning if they got the vaccine.
Not surprisingly, the angst of the parents has trickled down to the students.
One mother told me her 13-year-old daughter, who is not vaccinated, was berated in a bullying message sent to her class’s WhatsApp group. Another student blamed her for causing the class to go into quarantine – even though she is not the person who was infected.
“The principal and the teacher had a discussion with the boy and the entire class, but the damage was already done,” the mother said.
With the infection rate skyrocketing by the day in Israel, more than 92,000 students and 4,411 teaching staff were in quarantine on Tuesday – and that number is expected to rise throughout the week.
One of the 92K would be my son – the same one I wrote about last week. He had just finished his previous “house arrest” healthy, as expected, after an exposure to a COVID positive teacher who was vaccinated with three shots.
But after three days we got a call from his after-school program on Monday – yet another thrice-vaccinated volunteer came down with COVID sending scores of children into quarantine.
Now we, along with all Israeli parents, face the recurring dilemma:
Wait on hours-long lines to test your healthy child on day 1 and again on day 7 for his get-out-of-jail-early card?
Avoid all testing but endure 14 days under house arrest?
Or, vaccinate your child right away so he can be free to go back to school right away next time this happens?
In any case, we better all get comfortable as we bunker down for the long fifth wave ahead. With predictions of thousands of positive cases a day, quarantines are lurking around the corner for everyone.
Winter isn't coming. Winter is already here.
Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS