Israel tries to avoid third wave with the third reopening of schools

December 1, 2020 — by Lihi Shoshani

Editor’s Note: Eyal Shoshani is the reporter’s second cousin and Vered Shoshani is his mother. 

 

On May 16, while daily cases in the U.S. were in the 20,000s and on the rise, Israel reached its all-time daily low of just five COVID-19 infections. Israel was recognized as one of the only countries who had the pandemic under control. 

According to The New York Times, the government was emboldened by the dropping infection rates on May 17 and allowed students to return to school for the first time since the first lockdown on March 11. Within days, however, infections spread from Gymnasia Rehavia High School in Jerusalem to other schools, infecting teachers, students and relatives. 

“There was a general euphoria among the public, a sense that we had dealt with the first wave well and that it was behind us,” Gymnasia’s principal Danniel Leibovitch said. “Of course, that wasn’t true.”

The education ministry had issued instructions for masks to be worn by students in fourth grade and higher, windows be kept open, hands frequently washed and students to be six feet apart. However, when a heat wave hit, the government exempted students and teachers from wearing masks and opening windows, quickly creating a breeding ground for the disease.

Eighth- and ninth-grade teacher Vered Shoshani returned to school in May after Hadera Middle School in Hadera reopened. Once opened, however, three students contracted COVID-19, forcing the school to close again on June 20. 

Although cases began spiking during the first reopening, Vered’s son, Eyal Shoshani, who is in fourth grade, said he was sad to leave Ilay Ramon Elementary for the second time that year because he was thriving from the social interaction he had been missing for so long.

“I was able to learn more because I was surrounded by friends and teachers,” he said. “I was much more engaged in in-person learning than I have ever been over Zoom.” 

Vered herself went into quarantine shortly after the school closed when she tested positive for COVID-19, missing Israel’s New Year on Sept. 19. Although celebrations weren’t in-person this year, missing the important holiday put a further damper on their already disheartened moods. 

Schools didn’t reopen until Sept. 1, however, the nation quickly closed schools on Sept. 18 after a huge spike of cases, sparking the second wave, which led to a three-week lockdown as well as a shelter-in-place restriction that confines people within 500 meters of their own homes.

On Oct. 28, the Israeli Cabinet decided to open schools for the third time, this time aiming to be much more cautious.

In K-12 grades, there are a total of 1.8 million students. Those in fifth grade and above remained in online school while half a million children in first to fourth grade returned to in-person school. First- and second-graders were divided into 20-student cohorts and required to wear a mask during recess. 

These days, Eyal’s school is running for five days a week instead of the normal six, and the school day ends 15 minutes earlier than usual. Although his cohort of 17 students wears masks indoors, recess and lunch are another story.

He said students play tag, soccer and on playgrounds, unconcerned about the spread of the virus. The principal has called home to warn parents of their kids touching one another during breaks and to stress the importance of students remaining responsible when with friends. Although they aren’t strictly following safety procedures, the school won’t shut down if students continue to disregard precautions until someone contracts COVID-19. 

Vered said she understands the difficulty for young children to control the urge of playing in close groups after not seeing each other for months instead of being concerned for their safety. She herself deeply dislikes remote learning; she wishes the circumstances were better for her return to school as she has been encountering barriers with her students over Zoom.

“I feel distant and the students are very closed off,” she said. “Most don’t turn on their cameras because they don’t feel comfortable doing so in the morning while others mute their computers so they can’t hear me teaching.” 

Vered believes in-person learning allows for a personal connection between a teacher and students that can’t be replicated over a computer screen. Encouragement from teachers motivates students to do their best and continue learning, but this personal touch has been lost. 

“In class, I watch over the students, I touch their shoulders, if someone’s computer is off I help them turn it on, if a student hasn’t written what’s on the board I help write the title. I give them motivation and see in their eyes what they feel,” Vered said. “But now, you’re not in control. You don’t really know what’s happening behind the scenes.”

*Direct and indirect quotes from Vered and Eyal are translated from Hebrew.

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