The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday voted to reopen schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week, if morbidity rates remain low.
Under the plan approved by ministers, children in third and fourth grade will be divided into pods and resume studies five days a week, while those in first and second grade will be split into two groups that will alternate days and go to school only three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.
Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week. The reopening of the school system on September 1 has been blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.
Sunday’s decision came after hours of discussion, and after ministers voted to keep the existing health restrictions in place until next Sunday at midnight.
Separately, the coronavirus cabinet also voted late Sunday to impose a five-day closure in the northern town of Majdal Shams, which has seen virus cases soar in recent days. The local lockdown will go into effect on Monday evening at 6 p.m. through Saturday evening.
Earlier, the panel also reportedly backed a proposal by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, effective immediately, to allow students and teachers to gather outdoors in informal groups of up to 15, even as schools remain shut. This was not immediately confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office or Health Ministry.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu said: “It could be that [schools] will partially open for first and second grades [on November 1], and we will also discuss the partial opening of commerce, again, gradually and responsibly, and of course this all depends on the level of morbidity.”
“If morbidity goes down, then the restrictions will also gradually come down. If morbidity goes up, there will be no choice but to reimpose the restrictions,” he added.
Leaks to Hebrew media from the meeting quoted Netanyahu as saying the government cannot afford to split grades 1 and 2 into “capsules” or pods of fewer children — a Health Ministry demand — which he estimated would cost the state billions.
The plan to split grades 3 and 4 into pods had previously been approved and funded. However, the Education Ministry said implementing that solution in grades 1 and 2 as well, as the Health Ministry demanded, would cost an additional NIS 5.3 billion ($1.57 billion) and require five weeks of preparation including the hiring of 13,000 new employees.
The Finance Ministry opposed any plan that would require additional funding.
Deri, earlier in the evening, demanded that the government make a decision on the matter by Sunday night.
“We cannot disperse without a decision. I cannot accept that first and second grades will learn three days a week — it’s impossible for the children,” said Deri, according to Channel 12.
The government has yet to decide whether to allow the reopening of businesses, which the Finance Ministry has been pushing. The treasury has suggested terms that would see businesses limited to receiving up to five customers at a time, Channel 12 reported.
Earlier, Netanyahu also said the government would consider allowing tourism at the resort town of Eilat and hotels around the Dead Sea.
“We are making special arrangements for them because they are isolated, they are separated. This is very important news for the residents of these areas, and also for the citizens of Israel, who would like to go to defined and safe places,” he said.
Also on the agenda Sunday was the possibility of significantly increased fines, given high rates of noncompliance with existing guidelines in some areas, and the schedule for opening some public-facing businesses, which have lobbied loudly to be allowed to swiftly resume business activity.
Though schools nationwide have been officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary and high-school yeshivas — including in high-infection areas — opened last Sunday in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.
The current fine for schools that open in violation of the guidelines stands at NIS 5,000 ($1,481). That fine could be raised fivefold, according to reports Sunday.
“Today, we will submit to the cabinet increased fines so that everyone, without exception, across Israeli society, honours the agreements. This is not aimed at anyone – it is aimed at the virus. It is aimed on behalf of the health of us all,” said Netanyahu.
At the meeting, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu warned ministers that it would be impossible to continue easing restrictions if a daily test rate of 50,000 cannot be maintained.
Gamzu said though Israel currently has the capacity for 70,000 daily tests, the number of people applying for tests has dropped off in recent days, and stands only at some 40,000.
“The problem is a lack of response and will by the public to be tested,” he said.
Gamzu said infection rates were down among the ultra-Orthodox and up in Arab communities, but testing rates had dropped among both.
He warned generally of a renewed spike in infections in Arab towns.
“There are probably dozens of weddings a day in the Arab community. Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are in danger of becoming ‘red’ cities,” Gamzu said, referring to hotspots, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
He also cautioned that the government could not yet detect the ramifications of its decisions last week to reopen preschools and daycares.
That was echoed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.
“We still don’t know the effects of what we’ve done. We won’t know until two weeks have passed” from October 18, said Edelstein, according to Army Radio.
Ministers in the coronavirus cabinet also argued over reopening open-air markets, including Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda. Netanyahu was quoted arguing that the Health Ministry must draft tighter guidelines for enforcement in those areas, while signaling a willingness to reopen the markets later on.
The Health Ministry has broken down the government plan to ease the restrictions into nine distinct stages. Netanyahu has expressed interest in condensing the plan into five stages, but health officials have warned that that could cause infections to spiral.
Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.