JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will begin a staggered reopening of schools next week if the latest health data does not warn of heightened coronavirus risk, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Monday.
Israel closed schools and kindergartens in mid-March, worsening an economic lockdown as parents were forced to stay home to mind children. With unemployment peaking at 27% and contagion rates waning, Israel is now easing curbs.
Netanyahu’s office said children in the first three years of primary school would resume studies on Sunday, the beginning of the Israeli work-week, in reduced class sizes of no more than 15 pupils.
Kindergartens and nurseries will reopen with children allotted specific days rather than a full week of attendance, keeping them in small groups, a statement from the office said.
It described these measures as “the initial stage” of “a gradual reopening of the educational system in accordance with up-to-date morbidity data” that would be reviewed on Friday.
It said school reopenings would hinge on the data “not pointing to an exacerbation vector” in the coronavirus spread.
The data will include the results of an Israeli study into children’s susceptibility to the pandemic, the statement said.
Briefing reporters, Health Ministry official Ashar Shalmon said the cabinet would also be presented with a geographical mapping of cases. That suggested schools may be reopened on a town-by-town basis, rather than nationwide.
Israel - population 9 million - has reported 15,466 coronavirus cases and 202 deaths. With around 100 ventilators taken up by COVID-19 sufferers and another 2,000 on standby, the government sees an opportunity to rethink its emergency policy.
The Education Ministry last week proposed allowing pupils in the first three years of primary school and the last two years of secondary school back to class on reduced schedules that would thin their numbers out, limiting the infection danger.
Pupils in other years should, for now, stay home and continue with remote-learning, the ministry’s plan said.
Children at higher risk of contracting the virus, or who have a family member at such risk, will not be allowed back to school at this stage, according to the statement.
The school closures have cost the economy between $48 million and $128 million a day, Finance Ministry official Lev Drucker told reporters. Israel’s 2019 GDP was $400 billion. A 5.4% contraction is seen in 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis.
To help school staff cope with the burden of subdivided classes, students may be recruited as back-up teachers, the statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff