Coronavirus cabinet approves plan to reopen schools in most areas

After a marathon debate, the coronavirus cabinet approved Education Secretary Yoav Gallant’s plan early Tuesday to reopen most schools across the country.

After an eight-hour discussion, it was decided that high school students in areas designated green and yellow will return to school on Sunday.

High schools will reopen the following Sunday, December 6. Schools in red zones, those with high rates of disease, remain closed.

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Since the government began lifting lockdown restrictions in mid-September, grades 1-4 have returned to the classroom, and grades 5-6 joined on Tuesday.

The cabinet also decided to draw up a pilot plan for the gradual reopening of markets.

Gallant welcomed the decision, saying he would “step up testing of students and school staff to protect your health.”

“For you guys, all you have to do is prepare your bags,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Separately on Monday, the daughter of leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said she had received instructions from her father ordering Haredi girls’ schools to open. In a letter to the principals of the Beis Yaakov schools, Leah Koldetsky wrote that her father ordered them to resume their studies for girls, who have stopped for weeks.

Most ultra-Orthodox boys’ schools have been open for weeks in spite of government regulations, at Kanievsky’s orders.

High school students take entrance exam in Yehud, July 8, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger / Flash90)

Health officials had previously expressed objections to schoolchildren’s rapid return to the classroom, as the school system was seen as a major contributor to the spike in cases after an initial blockage lifted earlier this year, leading to the second shutdown in September.

Gallant has backed out against health officials, repeatedly claiming that the education system has not contributed to the rise in infections.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Sunday that he supported a return to school for all grades in cities with low infection rates, but only if this is not accompanied by other measures to ease the restrictions of the coronavirus.

Israel imposed a lockdown on September 18, which succeeded in pushing back rising infection rates, but which also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as cut back the entire education system. The government has since started to lift the restrictions, but health officials have raised the alarm when the decline in infections slowed first and then reversed.

Students at the Orot Etzion School, in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, West Bank on November 1, 2020 (Gershon Elinson / Flash90)

Officials, led by Netanyahu and Edelstein, have warned that if the number of cases diagnosed daily is not brought under control, there is a threat of a third lockdown.

The coronavirus cabinet meeting is because the average of new daily COVID-19 cases in the past week was 742, the highest rate since Oct. 28, according to the military-led coronavirus task force.

The transmission speed rose in the last days of October for the first time since a national lockdown was reversed above 1 earlier in the month, and continued to rise before slowing down slightly in early November. The numbers released Monday, which are based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus incubation period, pushed the figure back up, with a score of 1.07.

A transmission rate greater than 1 indicates that the case numbers are starting to expand exponentially.

The coronavirus cabinet had initially decided that the lockdown exit may only start if the transmission speed is below 0.8. According to the health ministry’s plan, rollback measures should be discontinued if the rate rises. However, the government has ignored that benchmark and is continuing to reopen schools.

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