After the coronavirus cabinet failed to reach any conclusions about when and how to open schools at its meeting on Wednesday, ministers are expected to continue the conversation over the weekend and come to some kind of conclusion by Sunday on whether children in grades 1-4 will return to school and if so, how.
“We will need to make decisions about the education system on Sunday,” Prof Ronni Gamzu said in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday. “We have to work hard over the weekend in order to come to a conclusion in the cabinet.”
His statements were later reiterated by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in an interview with Channel 12: “I hope that on Sunday we will make a final decision about the return to school.”
The Health Ministry has said that if classes resume, children will be required to learn in capsules beginning in first grade, all teachers and students will need to wear masks, and there can be no mixing of students – even on buses or in after-school programming.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant, however, said that it would take as long as five weeks to roll out such a program, and therefore classrooms could not open on November 1, as hoped. He also said it would require around NIS 6 billion, which the Finance Ministry said it won’t pay.
Other models have also been presented, such as turning over education directly to the local authorities, who could make decisions for themselves about whether they could open according to Health Ministry recommendations.
Minister of Science and Technology Izhar Shay told The Jerusalem Post that he presented the cabinet with a plan that would separate decisions about when and how to open schools from the rest of the return to routine.
“Children of all ages, zero to 18, are being influenced in negative ways by the pandemic,” Shay said. “They feel less secure; they feel lonely. That goes along with them missing their classes. All of this is very significant. We want to find ways to get kids back in the system as soon as possible.
“You cannot put a price tag on education,” the minister told the Post. “What a kid misses today cannot be made up tomorrow by investing a few shekels. You have to change the concept of going back to school, and this is what we suggested.
“We suggested that the local municipalities and the school principals be given the right to make decisions about when to open based on their own particular situation, supported by the Homefront Command and guided by the regulators at the Health Ministry,” Shay said.
But is it even safe for the country to allow its children to go back to school?
At Wednesday’s meeting, the Health Ministry presented ministers with a 26-page report, reviewed by the Post, which stressed the need to “return to activity gradually and in accordance with the level of morbidity among different age groups and in different locations.”
The report found that since the start of the pandemic through September 24, some 8% of all children who were screened for the virus tested positive, as opposed to 6% of adults – meaning that the morbidity rate is higher among children.
Moreover, serological tests conducted between June 28 and September 14 showed that 7.1% of children versus 4.8% of adults had antibodies against the virus.
“There was a flawed understanding from the beginning of the pandemic that we are only now beginning to understand,” head of Public Health Services Sharon Alroy-Preis said. “There were some very compelling statements – sometimes even among experts – that said children don’t infect or get infected. Then, you feel like everything will be fine.
“But with time, we see that this is incorrect,” she concluded in an interview with Channel 12.
The report showed that between 51% and 70% of children do not have symptoms, which makes positive cases harder to catch. However, it also showed that only 26% of children caught the virus from another child, versus 73.4% who were infected by an adult.
“Evidence involving the intensity of infection in children is uncertain,” Ran D. Balicer, a public health physician and researcher, told the news station. “What is sure is that children infect and get infected.”
“It’s a myth that the virus does not impact children,” Edelstein said during his interview. “In every place that schools open we see an increase in infection.”
As such, the Health Ministry concluded in its report that it was not yet ready to send children back to their classrooms according to the original plan agreed on with the Education Ministry before the start of the current school year – with first and second graders in larger groups and without masks.
“The Health Ministry is dealing with the ongoing condition of the coronavirus pandemic, which requires an assessment of morbidity among children and the implication [of their return to school] on the general population,” the report said. “According to our analysis, children infect and get infected – and may even be super-spreaders. Since most of them don’t show symptoms, it is difficult to identify a significant portion of the children who carry the virus and who may give it to others.”
But top researchers from across the country said that they feel otherwise and that the Health Ministry is looking at the cup half empty instead of half full.
In a letter sent to the Health and Education ministries Wednesday night, a team of scientists who have been tracking infections among school-aged children since the start of the pandemic said that while there is no doubt that kids can get coronavirus and transmit it, only in extremely rare cases are they super-spreaders – those who disproportionately infect a large number of people with the virus.
ORA PALTIEL, a professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health, told the Post that the opening of the educational system was not the main reason for the coronavirus wave that began on September 1.
Paltiel said there was a clear connection between the opening of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) education system on the first of the Hebrew month of Elul, August 20, and morbidity in that sector, especially among boys between the ages of 10-19. She noted that a report published only weeks ago showed that some 51% of infection in schools was in the haredi sector, while minimal levels of infection were found in the rest of the country’s educational institutions.
“There is no doubt that going back to school in the haredi school system caused a great spike in infections,” she said, adding that one of the reasons for this might be crowding in those schools and in many of the student dorms.
However, she said that in contrast, already on September 1 and 2 – the first days of school in the general system – there was a spike in infection.
“If we see a spike so quickly, it cannot be because of exposure [in the school],” she said.
Paltiel was signed on the letter, which referenced a report published earlier this month by the researchers that had been provided to the cabinet as they first started debating the country’s exit strategy earlier this month. In that report, it says that “returning children up to the age of 10 to a safe educational setting should be the first step in leaving quarantine.
“With the rise in coronavirus morbidity in September, an accusatory finger was pointed at the opening of the education system… We deny this and claim that children up to age 10 are not the catalyst for the spread of pandemic,” she said.
Paltiel said that she and her colleagues “strongly believe that the children are the victims of COVID management and not of COVID disease. They need and deserve to go to school for many reasons, not the least of them being health reasons.”
School is a “very important framework for kids to learn formally and informally,” and education is a big determiner of long-term health, she said.
Paltiel told the Post that what really “disappointed” her was that the Health Ministry report did not include any call to return kids to school. She said the emphasis should not be on whether kids infect or get infected – “we know kids are part of the pandemic, that they are not immune to it” – but how to find a way to open the school system despite this.
She also said that the Health Ministry must follow epidemiological data, such that there is no difference between preschoolers through age 10, and that these children should all be able to go back right away under the same regulations.
“To artificially separate first and second graders and third and fourth graders – there is no medical or epidemiological reason to do that,” Paltiel said. “It is time to move from ‘if’ to ‘how.’ That is our main point now – that this document from the Health Ministry puts us back several steps because it called into question the ‘if’ again.”
She added that most Western countries have made the decision that returning children to school is a risk-benefit issue: the risk of keeping children out of school outweighs the risks of letting them return to school and possibly getting infected.
“This is a value issue and we would like to see that value in our society,” Paltiel concluded. “We have to take certain risks in life and society to promote what is important. Sending kids back to school is very important.”
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