More than two million schoolchildren will be on Chanukah vacation this week and part of next; when classes resume next Tuesday, it is by no means clear whether it will be “business as usual,” due, of course, to the Omicron variant of coronavirus and the government’s concern regarding its spread among the population.
Within the Health Ministry, the Israel Hayom newspaper reports, officials are working with the assumption that the exceptionally large number of mutations in the Omicron variant means that it will spread more swiftly than the Delta variant. If this is true, they fear that a large number of unvaccinated students could become infected, especially those learning in packed classrooms or during Chanukah events held this week and the next.
All the same, since the new variant was first detected in the country, the education system has been broadcasting “business as usual” – but if the gloomy predictions are realized, many towns and cities are likely to find themselves with high levels of infection and with no choice other than to interrupt schooling and switch classes to an online format.
Worse still, the education system appears to have made little progress in correcting the deficiencies in online schooling that were revealed in previous periods when this was mandated. Following its most recent purchase of equipment, no additional survey has been made to find out what else is lacking.
Commenting on the latest developments, Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, said that, “There’s no doubt that the new variant will have a significant impact on the school system.” Davidovitch, who is a member of the government’s coronavirus panel of experts, added that, “We may have to reexamine the feasibility of the ‘green-classroom model.’ If this new variant starts to spread, we won’t be able to continue with this model. Meanwhile, we have to wait for the data to know the answer to that question.
“We may also have to broaden the Magen Chinuch program, move forward with better ventilation for classrooms, expand PCR testing, and encourage more vaccination among students. Even if it turns out that the vaccine is less effective against the new strain, it will probably retain a certain level of efficacy; and so vaccines, along with these other measures, will play a significant role,” he said.
As of Sunday, there were 25,471 students in quarantine, with a further 4,395 active cases of the virus among students. Around 106 students were diagnosed with the virus over Shabbat, a relatively small figure in comparison with the number diagnosed mid-week. There are also 220 virus cases among teaching staff, and further 402 teachers in quarantine.
One of the biggest questions now is how the Chanukah vacation will impact contagion levels. According to Prof. Davidovitch, “Students who travel abroad over Chanukah will be obligated to enter quarantine when they return, just as adults are, in order to make sure that they aren’t carrying the virus. If adherence to the regulations is insufficient and people aren’t meticulous about wearing face masks and social distancing, we can expect to see a large number of new cases following the vacation. Chanukah events could become virus-spreading events – but then, of course, so can regular classes in school. It would be a good idea to set up vaccination stations near the halls where these Chanukah events are being held, which could boost vaccination rates. We need to be slowing the spread of this new variant with all the means at our disposal.”
Prof. Davidovitch also noted that there are additional steps that could be taken, which have already been authorized but not implemented. “The main thing we need to be doing is enforcing the restrictions,” he stressed; “things like making sure people wear face masks in enclosed spaces, including classrooms. We should be appointing people to take charge of this matter in places where no one is currently doing that job, including in schools and in local authorities. This is something that hasn’t been done properly until now.”
More and more cases of coronavirus have been detected among students in recent days; however, unlike last year, the Education Ministry is not publishing the figures in full. This change was implemented by the current Education Minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton, who, when she assumed the position, stated that the Health Ministry was responsible for publishing the data, not her own office.