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Opening Day: With masks and new rules, 2.5 million Israeli children return to school

Some schools barred from opening in a last-minute government decision to shutter schools in 'red' cities

JERUSALEM - Masks. Smaller "capsule" class sizes. Staggered learning days for older grades.

This is how some 2.5 million Israeli students returned to school Tuesday as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect many across the country and complicate the lives of parents, children, teachers and administrators. 

But not all students were permitted to return.

Late Monday night — hours before school started — Israel's coronavirus cabinet voted to keep schools in 23 “red” cities closed.

“The school year is opening for 2.5 million students, contrary to all predictions,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Kan news. “We hope to bring back as soon as possible the 130,000 students in red cities.”

Israel students reunite with teachers at a tentative Sept. 1 school opening. (Photo credit: All Israel News)

Gallant wanted to reopen all schools but was at odds with Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu who insisted on delaying the reopening of schools in red cities. The last-minute vote affects 332 schools and 716 kindergartens in areas with high virus infections rates. 

“It could be that the education minister will be justified in the end, but this is not about who is right,” Gamzu told reporters on Monday. “We manage risks, and this is not a risk to take."

Schools were closed in March with the outbreak of the coronavirus, but reopened in mid-May under new restrictions for the Ministry of Health. Since then, classes have not returned to their original size and parents are not allowed on school grounds.

The schools are now operating under the Ministry of Education’s “Safe Learning” plan which stipulates different requirements for the various grades. Kindergartens will operate as normal. Students in grades one and two will also experience few changes. Children in grades three and four, however, will wear masks at specific times and learn in “capsules,” or small groups of up to 18 children. Students from grades 5 through 12 will arrive in small groups on staggered days with an emphasis on distance learning over the Internet throughout the week.

Parents and students greet each other on Israel's first day of school Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo credit: All Israel News)

The schools that are prohibited from reopening are mostly in Arab and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where the virus infection rates are higher than other areas of the country.

The “traffic light” plan imposes localized closures on towns based on virus morbidity rates and allows the rest of the country to remain open. The limitations are categorized as constructed “red” which will have the strictest limitations then “orange,” “yellow” and “green” ones with increasingly looser restrictions.

The Israeli death toll due to COVID-19 stood at 939 as of Monday night.

Students wearing masks as they get on a minibus on Israel’s first day of school Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo credit: All Israel News)

Gamzu defended his strong stance on keeping a segment of schools closed on opening day: “They say I am crazy that I ask not to open schools in the red cities.”

Gamzu’s aim was to avoid shutdowns in these areas as he expected instances of the coronavirus to affect every school in the red cities, he insisted. 

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