Israel’s government appeared to have learnt the key lesson of the country’s second coronavirus wave: open things slowly. Slowly enough to see the impact of each decision in the hope that infection rates keep dropping, and slowly enough to stop or reverse any relaxation of the rules before things spiral out of control again and a third lockdown becomes necessary.
Or at least, that’s the plan. But it’s already running into trouble over the reopening of the education system, starting, in theory, with pre-schools, kindergartens and daycare for 0-6-year-olds.
More than just pre-schools
Did I say starting with pre-schools? That’s not quite right, actually.
- Students at Hesder Yeshivot for post-school national religious students returned to their studies a week ago, right after the Sukkot festival, at the height of the full national lockdown.
- National-religious boarding schools for teenagers, the pnimiot and ulpanot, reopened this week. In theory, students at these schools will be restricted to “capsules”, but given that they’re also allowed to spend every other weekend at home, the capsule situation is
- Haredi Yeshivot will return later this week, also with a capsule deal — which worked out so well last time.
So even officially, a lot more educational institutions are opening, with many teenagers going back to school in person.
And that’s just what’s legally open.
R Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of much of Israel’s non-Hassidic Ashkenazi Haredi community, ordered that schools for younger children – well, for younger boys, anyway – the Talmud Torah schools, should open despite the law. Yesterday, many did.
This morning, some girls’ schools also began opening illegally, too. These illegal school reopenings are not limited to R Kanievsky’s community; many Hassidic schools are also open.
Some Haredi schools took things even further, celebrating the illegal reopenings with parties and bouncy castles, like this one from the Red Zone city, Elad, today.
So while the government talks about a slow, phased reopening starting only with under-7s, the reality is that large parts of the education sectors are open at all ages.
Ironically, the few remaining Red Zones in Israel (Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Elad etc) are the only places in the country where all schools, for all ages, are open. Meanwhile places with very low coronavirus incidence, like Tel Aviv, remain closed.
Schools and coronavirus
The science on schools and coronavirus is not settled. At all. There are vastly differing studies out there, with some papers saying schools are not a source of Covid-19 outbreaks at all, and others suggesting that they’re a major factor.
There is consensus that children, especially those younger than ten, are much less likely to develop symptoms if they catch the coronavirus, and are much less likely to become seriously ill. Because of this, they’re probably at least somewhat less contagious on average because the virus is less likely to make them cough or sneeze.
That’s where the consensus ends, though. Some studies suggest that kids catch the virus at about the same rate as adults, while others say they’re less likely to get it. Some studies claim that children are much less infectious than adults, while others say the difference is marginal.
In Israel, about a third of all coronavirus cases were in the 0-19 age ranges. This means children and teens are under-represented compared to their share of the population, but not by a big amount.
A recently-published study by Israeli researchers looked at infectivity across households in Bnei Brak:
We estimate that the susceptibility of children (under 20 years old) is 43% of the susceptibility of adults.
The infectivity of children was estimated to be 63% relative to that of adults.
This might look like kids and teenagers are a lot less likely to catch and spread the virus.
However, schools themselves are higher-risk environments. Small and often crowded classrooms with 40 students from different households, with exemptions from masking and physical distancing requirements; dining rooms and corridors where different classes mix indoors; lots of physical contact during breaktimes. In particular, classroom learning makes superspreader events more likely.
So even if kids are half as likely to get the virus and two-thirds as likely to spread it, schools themselves could increase their chance of catching it by a couple of orders of magnitude.
Because children are much less likely to be symptomatic, the coronavirus is much less likely to be noticed if it spreads in a school. Some studies that claim school outbreaks themselves are rare, but this isn’t much of a surprise if nobody’s looking for them.
Other studies, though, have found that schools are often a hidden source of infection for adults, with parents getting Covid-19 from asymptomatic kids who were unknowing carriers of the virus. This is hard to detect, so it could happen more often than is known.
Israel has already seen the impact of school reopenings. In late May, when schools first reopened, virus cases shot up, hundreds of schools were shut and students quarantined.
In August, when the Yeshivot returned, virus incidence was already high at around 1500 cases a day. Just ten days later, when the rest of the schools began their year, that had risen to over 3000. Two weeks later, Israel was seeing 5000 cases a day and the government was proposing a full lockdown.
Third lockdown or permanent limbo?
If Israel was only opening education and daycare for under-7s, then that could be a wise move. Indeed, that’s how it’s been presented to the public. The theory is that this can’t possibly be enough to push R above 1, and that the virus will continue to decline.
The reality, though, is that residential yeshivot of all types, which were mostly responsible for the lockdown, are reopening too. The entire Haredi education system in the cities with the highest virus rates is also open, and the government has admitted that it can’t and won’t enforce those closures.
If Covid-19 cases begin to rise again, Israel could find itself stuck in permanent limbo, unable to meet the targets needed for the next stages of reopening, particularly the 500-case target for opening shops and markets.
Alternatively, school outbreaks could go undetected until we start to see increased cases among adults in a month or so. If that happens, a third lockdown is very possible, likely at at around Hannuka time.
And how will the Israeli public react if wider restrictions remain in place for months because, once again, of the Haredi education system?
I end a lot of these pieces by saying I hope I’m wrong, and this one is no exception. I hope that the significant drop in new daily cases continues, that schools of all sorts remain virus-free, and that Israel can move towards a balanced R budget that enables wider reopenings.
I’m not very confident, though. I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks enjoying our new-found freedoms before we lose them again.