Israel coronavirus: Students return to school amid uncertainty, anxiety

By breakfast time, the girls had dressed, brushed their own hair and — as they bounced on couches in the living room that had been their...

By breakfast time, the girls had dressed, brushed their own hair and — as they bounced on couches in the living room that had been their only classroom since the middle of March — talked of friends they would finally see.

Israel’s lurch back toward scholastic routine after weeks of online learning has been scattered and controversial. Education officials have been caught between health experts warning of a second outbreak and business advocates seeking to free parents up to return to work.

Last week, with the country’s infection rate declining, the Ministry of Education announced that grades one through three would return Sunday in most schools, with grades 11 and 12 to follow later in the week. Classes would be divided into smaller groups and some schools would stagger start times. Teachers over the age of 65 and those with underlying health concerns would remain at home. Local school systems could choose not to reopen. Each family could decide whether to send their child.

“We have succeeded in finding a balance between the desire to restore the economy and guidelines from the Ministry of Health,” Education Minister Rafi Peretz said in a statement Saturday.

Some parents would have preferred more clarity. Just how much danger will there be to the students? To their families at home?

Michal Abramson is a mother of three in the city of Modi’in. The household includes two people with compromised immune systems.

“I am dying to send my kids back and they really want to go, but no one knows what will happen, and that puts us all at risk,” she said. “When the kids are in school they don’t know how to social distance. When one kid gets head lice, they all get head lice.”

For Julia Boxer, a business owner in the town of Even Yehuda, knowing that kids will be kids meant keeping her 8-year-old daughter at home a while longer.

“Of course they are going to want to hug and kiss their friends,” she said. “They have not seen each other for six weeks.”

Several large cities, including Tel Aviv, said they would stay closed for now. Teachers groups, too, pushed back, wanting clarity on safety measures and how they will be paid for weeks of online teaching. Several associations of preschool and day care workers said their members would not return to work on May 10, when the government hopes to reopen those facilities.

Matti and Anna Michel had gone over the new rules with the twins several times: No taking books from the library, no borrowing pencils from other students, no games that require touching (“Which is pretty much every kid game there is,” Matti, 36, said ruefully).

Now Matti braced to deliver some bad news the parents had received on a conference call the night before — the call in which the teacher had warned that the whole setup was a “social experiment,” and two mothers, crying, had said they were too afraid to send their children back. “Girls,” he said. “We won’t be able to come into school with you. We have to leave you at the gate.”

Clil looked over the wall of cereal boxes, tearing up. She had already learned that her class would be split in two to create space for physical distancing. She was moving to a 5th-grade classroom far from half her friends and her twin sister.

“I don’t want to go alone,” she said. “I don’t know where to go.”

“You do know,” said her sister, who started to sketch a map of the building on a scrap of paper. “It’s by the music room.”

“That’s the stress,” Matti said, as mother Anna pulled Clil’s hair through a scrunchy and the girl fit the cords of a face mask, decorated with unicorns, over her ears.

The family was safe and healthy. But Matti and Anna had made a point of telling the girls that the pandemic had cost some of their friends their jobs. They knew why they hadn’t been able to hug their grandparents in weeks. They knew people were dying. Sometimes on the street the girls asked: Why isn’t that person wearing a mask?

What no one knew was whether they would be back to square one again in two weeks, stuck once more in their third-floor apartment as infection rates spiked anew. But now it was time to go.

“Ready?” asked Anna, opening the door.

“I don’t envy the teachers,” she said as the family made their way down still-quiet streets to the school. “It’s nearly an impossible situation.”

Normally the sidewalks would be filled with students; commuter traffic would make it a chore to cross HaPalmach Street. Now, the Michels were all but alone, pioneers on the march to a new normal.

“Good for you,” said a man who was guiding an oil truck backward into a driveway, pausing it to let them pass.

Anna, a nonprofit executive who is between jobs, made good use of the home-schooling window by teaching her girls to read in her native Russian, which she has spoken to them since birth.

“Suddenly, I had all this time with them,” she said.

She would prefer that schools waited until it was clearer that the risk of a second wave had passed. Her husband, a lawyer, wishes they would move faster. He’s comforted by evidence he has read that children are less prone to be infected.

He called up a photo of a boy with a backpack. It was just sent by his brother-in-law, a pediatric lung specialist. “They are sending their son to school this morning,” Matti said. “I think it’s fine.”

At the Henrietta Szold Elementary School gate, the Michels found none of the usual hubbub. Only a few cars pulled up to disperse little masked scholars. Matti filled out a form that pledged the family to check the children’s temperature each morning.

Alma walked through the gate. Clil followed, and then walked out again, her eyes scared above her mask. “This is so crazy,” Matti said.

Suddenly, her mother pointed and Clil saw a staff member handing out Popsicles on the other side. She went in, and moments later they saw her enter the building, guided by a teacher to her new classroom.

“It’s the uncertainty that has been so hard,” said Rotem Halevi after walking her second-grade daughter to the gate. As a class representative, she knew of at least three families in the grade of around 30 who were planning to keep their children home. “People don’t feel secure because they keep changing the directions so often.”

Education officials reported Sunday that 80 percent of Israel’s local school systems opened their early grades for the first day. Sixty percent of students who were eligible to return showed up, they said.

To many, it felt like a start.

“I think it will take a week for people to get used to the idea,” Halevi said. Her husband has had to close his coffee shop in a Jerusalem mall during the outbreak.

“This is what we all want,” she said. “To come back to normal.”

The Michels turned back home. Anna pushed their one-year-son in a stroller toward a house that would be strangely quiet as they waited to hear, from the children on the front line of return, just how normal it was going to be.

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

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Newsrust: Israel coronavirus: Students return to school amid uncertainty, anxiety
Israel coronavirus: Students return to school amid uncertainty, anxiety
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