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Israel’s Bennett approves COVID outline to open schools on Sept. 1

The school system is expected to open on time on September 1, despite an increasing rise in infection rates and a leaked report that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is planning for a High Holy Days lockdown.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of September 6 this year, meaning there would be only three and a half days of school prior to it.

Bennett approved a plan to start the school year presented to him on Sunday evening by the Health, Education and Finance ministries. The plan, which still must be approved by the coronavirus cabinet, consists of five layers of protective actions to help keep COVID-19 out of the school system:

1. Serological tests

A series of serological tests will be performed on students to determine who has had the virus – perhaps without knowing it, since many children are asymptomatic – and still maintains an effective level of antibodies.

This program is expected to kick off on Monday in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools in Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Modi’in Illit and Elad. The tests are being taken through the local testing complexes.

If successful, the program will be expanded to 1.6 million additional students.

2. Rapid antigen testing

Parents will receive vouchers through their health funds and be asked to take their children for rapid tests 48 hours before the start of the school year. Some 1.9 million students will be asked to take these tests.

3. The “Green Classroom” program

When a sick student is discovered in a school, that student will enter isolation immediately. The other students or faculty members with whom the child has been in contact will undergo testing for seven days.

Each day, the contacts will be screened. If the tests are negative, they will go to school. If someone tests positive, he or she will be asked to be isolated.

The model will begin as a pilot program in the haredi schools and then be expanded into Arab schools and eventually, if effective, the rest of the education system.

4. “Magen” for the education system

Coronavirus testing will take place in schools once a week in orange and red areas.

5. Lifestyle changes

All students and teachers will be asked to wear masks, abide by social distancing and maintain good hygiene. In addition, learning, when possible, will be conducted in open areas.

At the same time, students over the age of 12 and teachers will be encouraged to get the jab.

“The return of students to the school routine will have a decisive effect on their personal and social resilience and the shaping of their personalities,” Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (New Hope) said. “In the last year and a half, children have paid a heavy price due to the social disconnection and loneliness, as well as due to the loss of many school days. We have a moral and educational duty to create certainty and stability for them.”

But while Bennett approved a plan to jump back into school, KAN News said it had leaked information that the prime minister was simultaneously planning for a High Holy Days lockdown.

KAN News said it had gained access to a “secret document” of the coronavirus cabinet in which Bennett instructed ministers to prepare for a lockdown. He cited the main efforts the government was focusing on to help stop the closure, but added that “if all this does not help, we will require more severe restrictions, including lockdown, which we will probably schedule for the [High Holy Days] period to reduce damage,” the report said.

In contrast to the document, ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting fought over whether a closure should even be on the table.

“We need to uproot that word ‘closure’ from our discussions,” Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) reportedly said during the discussions. “The very fact that we are talking about it is establishing a reality on the ground.”

Earlier in the day, at the kickoff of the country’s rapid-testing network, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said it was “too early to say” if the country would require a lockdown during the upcoming High Holy Days.

“A lockdown is a very difficult step with impact on the economy and society, so I do not accept the arguments that a decision should be made on a lockdown right now,” he said. “A lockdown is a last resort, and as long as there is a chance to avoid it, we will do everything possible” to prevent it.

The previous government wasted NIS 200 billion on lockdowns, Horowitz said.

“We have the option to invest much smaller amounts now to avoid major economic damage later,” he said.

Horowitz made his remarks after being screened at a Magen David Adom clinic in Jerusalem to kick off the program, which is meant to enable the Green Pass program for entering public events.

The tests are performed like the standard PCR test, meaning they require a swab of the nostril. However, they are developed within 15 minutes, and the results are delivered to individuals via a personal text message.

If the test is positive, the individual is required to enter isolation and take a PCR test. The test costs NIS 52 and is free for children under 12.

Unlike a PCR test, the rapid test only allows entry for 24 hours and then has to be repeated.

There are 120 rapid-testing complexes across Israel. To make an appointment, call *3101. The list of centers can be found online at https://www.mdais.org/101/stopcoronavirus.

“We talked about rapid tests for a year, and now we have them,” Horowitz said. “Today, we are breaking out the infrastructure that will allow us to live with the coronavirus.”

Rapid tests are also being offered at 10 Super-Pharm branches throughout the country by Ichilov Well. The tests are approved by the Health Ministry and will cost NIS 59.90 or 51.90 for Super-Pharm members.

The pharmacy chain said it plans to expand its network of rapid-testing sites in the coming days.

The solution to stopping a lockdown is first and foremost getting the 1.1 million people who have not yet been inoculated to the vaccination complexes, health officials have stressed.

Horowitz once again called on these people to get the jab. In response to a question from The Jerusalem Post, he said the Health Ministry was working closely with local authorities to push vaccination among their constituents.

“It is happening in a lot of places,” Horowitz said, adding that there is a race between the local authorities to get the most residents vaccinated.

The Health Ministry has also launched a race between haredi schools in which they are providing incentives to encourage students to vaccinate.

At the same time, Bennett called on older members of the Arab community, who have been hesitant to get a third shot, to get inoculated.

“Your life and the lives of your family members are very important to me,” he said. “Unfortunately, the immunization rate in the Arab community is too low. I hereby call on anyone over the age of 60 to go and get vaccinated with the third vaccine.”

“I call on young people who have not been vaccinated at all, and there are many, go out today to get vaccinated,” Bennett said. “This way you will not be infected and will not infect. It will save the lives of your loved ones.”

The government was supposed to update the list of countries to which Israelis will be banned from traveling or be required to enter isolation upon return on Sunday. But a discussion on the subject failed to render results, and no announcement was made.

There were 2,915 people diagnosed with coronavirus on Saturday, the Health Ministry reported Sunday evening. There were 363 patients in serious condition, 40 more than there were on Friday, it said.

The death toll is also starting to climb, and 6,541 people have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic, the Health Ministry reported.

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