Learning from International Schools Part II: Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of Israel

By guest blogger Nathan Storey*

The summer is over and fall semester is underway across the United States. Schools are reopening and students are back in the classroom, either virtually or in the flesh. Up to now, the focus of discussion has been about whether and how to open schools: in person, using remote instruction, or some mix of the two. But as schools actually open, those with any element of in-person teaching are starting to worry about how they will handle any outbreaks, should they occur. In fact, many countries that opened their schools before the U.S. have actually experienced outbreaks, and this blog focuses on learning from the tragic experience of Israel.  

In in-person schooling, outbreaks are all but inevitable. “We have to be realistic…if we are reopening schools, there will be some Covid,” says Dr. Benjamin Linas, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University (Nierenberg & Pasick, 2020). Even though U.S. schools have already reopened, it is not too late to put outbreak plans into place in order to stem any future outbreaks and allow schools to remain in session.

Israel

On Thursday, September 17, Israel’s school system was shut down due to rising positivity rates; 5,523 new cases were recorded in one day prior to the decision, in a country about one fortieth the size of the U.S. The closures are due to last until October 11, though special education and youth-at-risk programs are continuing. The spike in COVID cases reported by health officials centered around children 10 years of age and up. “The government made the wrong decision, against professional recommendations,” COVID commissioner and Professor Ronni Gamzu wrote in a letter to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Education Minister Yoav Gallant.

Israel has been a cautionary tale since reopening schools in May. By July, 977 students and teachers were diagnosed with COVID, 22,520 had been quarantined, and 393 schools and kindergartens had been closed by the Education Ministry (Kershner & Belluck, 2020; Tarnopolsky, 2020). At the beginning of September, 30 “red” cities and neighborhoods were placed under lockdown due to spikes. Almost 4,000 students and over 1,600 teachers are currently in quarantine, while more than 900 teachers and students have been diagnosed with the virus (Savir, 2020).

Schools initially reopened following a phased approach and using social distancing and mask protocols. Students with diagnosed family members were not allowed back, and older staff members and those at risk were told not to return to the classroom. It seemed as if they were doing everything right. But then, a heat wave wiped all the progress away.

Lifting the face mask requirement for four days and allowing schools to shut their windows (so they could air condition) offered new opportunities for the virus to run rampant. An outbreak at Gymnasia Rehavia, a high school in Jerusalem, turned into the largest single-school outbreak seen so far, soon reaching to students’ homes and communities. Outbreaks also appeared outside of the Jerusalem area, including in an elementary school in Jaffa. Reflecting on the nationwide spread of the virus, researchers have estimated that as much as 47% of the total new infections in the whole of Israel could be traced to Israeli schools (Tarnopolsky, 2020), introduced to schools by adult teachers and employees, and spread by students, particularly middle-school aged children.

This crisis serves to illustrate just how important it is for education leaders, teachers, and students to remain vigilant in prevention efforts. The Israeli schools largely had the right ideas to ensure prevention. Some challenges existed, particularly related to fitting students into classrooms while maintaining six feet separation given large class sizes (in some cases, classrooms of 500 square feet have to hold as many as 38 students). But by relaxing their distancing regulations, the schools opened students, staff, and communities to a major outbreak.

Schools responded with quarantining individual students, classmates of infected students, teachers, and staff; and when a second unconnected case was detected, schools would close for two weeks. But Israel did not place a priority on contact tracing and testing. Students and staff were tested following outbreaks, but they experienced long wait times to take the test, increasing the opportunities for spread. In the case of one school outbreak, Professor Eli Waxman of Weizmann Institute of Science reported that school officials could not identify which buses students took to reach school (Kershner & Belluck, 2020). Having this type of information is vital for tracing who infected students may have come into contact with, especially for younger students who may not be able to list all those with whom they’ve been in close contact.

Before the fall semester began, it looked as if Israel had learned from their previous mistakes. The Education Ministry disseminated new regulations adapted to the local level based on infection rates, and once more planned a phased reopening approach starting with K-4th grades, followed by middle- and high-school students, who were set to follow a hybrid remote and in-person instruction approach. Schools planned to use plastic barriers to separate students in the classroom. Education leaders were to develop a guidebook to support the transition from in-person to distance learning and procedures to maintain distancing during celebrations or graduation ceremonies.

These precautions and adaptive plans suggested that Israel had learned from the mistakes made in the summer. Upon reopening, a new lesson was learned. Schools cannot reopen in a sustainable and long-term manner if community positivity rates are not under control.

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

References

Couzin-Frankel, J., Vogel, G., & Weil, M. (2020, July 7). School openings across globe suggest ways to keep coronavirus at bay, despite outbreaks. Science | AAAS. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/school-openings-across-globe-suggest-ways-keep-coronavirus-bay-despite-outbreaks

Jaffe-Hoffman, M. (2020, September 16). 5,500 new coronavirus cases, as gov’t rules to close schools Thursday. The Jerusalem Post. https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/coronavirus-4973-new-cases-in-the-last-day-642338

Kauffman, J. (2020, July 29). Israel’s hurried school reopenings serve as a cautionary tale. The World from PRX. https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-07-29/israels-hurried-school-reopenings-serve-cautionary-tale

Kershner, I., & Belluck, P. (2020, August 4). When Covid subsided, Israel reopened its schools. It didn’t go well. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/world/middleeast/coronavirus-israel-schools-reopen.html

Nierenberg, A., & Pasick, A. (2020, September 16). For school outbreaks, it’s when, not if—The New York Times. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/us/for-school-outbreaks-its-when-not-if.html

Savir, A. (2020, September 1). 2.4 million Israeli students go back to school in shadow of COVID-19. J-Wire. https://www.jwire.com.au/2-4-million-israeli-students-go-back-to-school-in-shadow-of-covid-19/

Schwartz, F., & Lieber, D. (2020, July 14). Israelis fear schools reopened too soon as Covid-19 cases climb. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/israelis-fear-schools-reopened-too-soon-as-covid-19-cases-climb-11594760001

Tarnopolsky, N. (2020, July 14). Israeli data show school openings were a disaster that wiped out lockdown gains. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/israeli-data-show-school-openings-were-a-disaster-that-wiped-out-lockdown-gains

Photo credit: Talmoryair / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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