משה בר סימן טוב
Moshe Bar Siman-Tov
Photo: Yoav Dudkevich
Students at a school in Bat Yam

Israel must shut down its schools now!

Opinion: Efforts to keep education system open at all cost have resulted in more and more students becoming infected with coronavirus; state must recognize reality and immediately send children home to study remotely, until a better solution is found

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov |
Published: 01.11.22, 23:37
Israel's response to the rapid onset of the Omicron variant of coronavirus mainly relies on the hope that the more optimistic predictions regarding the current infection wave materialize and everything will somehow turn out okay in the end.
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  • The government hopes the medical system will be able to deal with the massive surge in patients expected to begin in the coming days as coronavirus goes head-to-head with seasonal ailments such as flu, which contrary to what most people think is not just a mild cough.
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    אורט רמת יוסף
    אורט רמת יוסף
    Students at a school in Bat Yam
    (Photo: Kobi Koankes)
    And if the situation really becomes hairy, Israel hopes to just let doctors and nurses continue working even if they are infected with the virus.
    As part of this chaotic pandemic strategy, it was decided that schools will continue to operate normally, just like most of the economy, with no steps or restrictions to limit the virus' spread.
    If a student was in contact with a confirmed carrier, all he or she needs to do is to take a home test and go back to class if the result is negative.
    After two years fighting this pandemic, most of us know that there is no epidemiological reasoning behind this decision, as the virus has a minimal incubation period until it is detected, which was the reason people were sent into quarantine to begin with.
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    אילוס אילוסטרציה בדיקת בדיקה קורונה אנטיגן
    אילוס אילוסטרציה בדיקת בדיקה קורונה אנטיגן
    Coronavirus home testing kits
    (Photo: AFP)
    The Health Ministry did well on Monday to clarify to the public that the test needs to be taken at least 72 hours after the initial exposure, but it is still unclear whether this guideline is an order or merely a recommendation, with the issue of isolation remaining unsolved.
    At the moment, students are able to return to school immediately after contact with a carrier if their home test returns negative. This policy is designed to continue the spread of the disease because in many cases the test would show a false negative.
    It is likely that an innumerable number of such cases occurred, and we will never know about them, without mentioning the fact that antigen tests may not detect Omicron properly.
    The new testing policy, which severely limits the availability of PCR testing, does not only touch upon the education system, since children do not only go to schools. They meet other people, among them the elderly and those who are at high risk of developing severe illness from the virus.
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    מתחם בדיקות הקורונה של מד"א בתל אביב
    מתחם בדיקות הקורונה של מד"א בתל אביב
    A line of cars in front of a PCR testing center in Tel Aviv
    (Photo: AFP)
    An order that was meant to keep daily life as normal as possible has only caused more chaos.
    The virus did not bend to our hopes and measures and continues to infect even those whose antigen tests came out negative, plunging students, teachers and parents into anarchy. Let us also not forget the scarce availability and high pricing of these tests.
    The desire to maintain an open education system at all costs has led to mass infection events occurring among children every day. At this point, there will be those who will say that children experience just a mild illness and that in the end it might even be preferable to develop a natural immunity to the virus.
    The answer to this is that despite all the hopes - the virus is still refusing to cooperate with us and insists on infecting a growing proportion of people who have recovered from it.
    Beyond that, we still do not know what the effects of the virus are in the long run. Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates a 2.5-fold higher chance of developing diabetes in children who have been infected with the virus (not the Omicron strain because not enough time has passed to conduct this type of research).
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    ביקור נפתלי בנט במרכז הרפואי שיבא תל השומר
    ביקור נפתלי בנט במרכז הרפואי שיבא תל השומר
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visiting Sheba Medical Center's coronavirus ward
    (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that in the coming weeks, between two and four million Israelis are expected to be infected with the virus - after the past two years of the pandemic saw about 1.5 million infected.
    If this estimate is correct, there are still millions of people whose infection can be prevented. In such large numbers, even the number of potentially serious cases is huge.
    Efforts should be made to control the size of the spread and to reach the lowest possible infection projection. It is also worthwhile to ensure morbidity is kept to a minimum as much as possible in order to control the burden on hospitals - which causes not only excessive mortality but also an increasing erosion of staff.
    What can still be done? Unfortunately, in the situation we have reached, there is no point or justification for the continued activity of the education system, certainly not in its current format, since studies are discontinued automatically due to confirmed infections in classrooms.
    Attempts to keep the system active at all cost have resulted in more and more students becoming infected. Even someone who wants to protect their children, himself and his environment from infection cannot do so.
    This phenomenon could have been significantly reduced if the Education Ministry had prepared schools for frontal learning in smaller classrooms, which would have made it possible to control the rate of infection among children and teachers.
    The time for vaccinating children in order to limit the scope of the current infection wave is also running out, after only 11.5% of children aged 5-11 have so far been inoculated.
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    חיסוני קורונה בירושלים
    חיסוני קורונה בירושלים
    A child receives her coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Jerusalem
    (Photo: EPA)
    If this is not done, all that is left is to acknowledge that large parts of the education system have been put under a de-facto lockdown, with its effect echoing onto other parts of the economy.
    What needs to be done now is to recognize reality and transfer children to distant learning for a scheduled period of one to two weeks, and take that time to prepare schools for frontal learning in small groups in order to attempt to control the infection wave.
    The insistence on maintaining the appearance of a normal learning routine will lead Israel both to - a de-facto closure of the education system and to a much more violent infection wave.
    We also need to double down on the measures already in place, including face masks, social distancing and working from home as much as possible, in order to avoid unnecessary harm to the lives of the Israeli public.

    Moshe Bar Siman-Tov is the former director-general of the Health Ministry and a member of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)

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