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After Reopening Schools, Israel Orders Them To Shut If COVID-19 Cases Are Discovered

Students wear masks May 17 outside a school in the Israeli city of Modiin. Israeli students in all grades went back to school last month.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Students wear masks May 17 outside a school in the Israeli city of Modiin. Israeli students in all grades went back to school last month.

Two weeks after Israel fully reopened schools, a COVID-19 outbreak sweeping through classrooms — including at least 130 cases at a single school — has led officials to close dozens of schools where students and staff were infected. A new policy orders any school where a virus case emerges to close.

The government decision, announced Wednesday evening, comes after more than 200 cases have been confirmed among students and staff at various schools. At least 244 students and school employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Ministry of Education. At least 42 kindergartens and schools have been shuttered indefinitely. More than 6,800 students and teachers are in home quarantine by government order.

It's an abrupt reversal of the post-pandemic spirit in Israel as officials lifted most remaining coronavirus restrictions last week. Withfewer than 300 deathsin Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared victory in early May over the pandemic and last week told Israelis to go to restaurants and "enjoy yourselves."

But by the weekend, the spike in cases led him to consider reimposing restrictions, including closing all schools. The education minister, Yoav Gallant, argued that the overall number of virus cases in Israeli schools remains low and closing them all would not be justified.

Schools first began to reopen in early May, with classes staggered in smaller groups or "capsules" of students to prevent a wide outbreak. By May 17, limitations on class size were lifted.

The most significant outbreak appeared last week in the Gymnasia Rehavia, a historic middle and high school in Jerusalem. There, 116 students and 14 teachers were infected, according to the Ministry of Education, and the school closed. Built in 1928, its graduates include prominent novelists, politicians and Netanyahu's late brother.

Health officials said they're investigating how the virus spread there. A teacher told NPR a seventh-grader was first discovered to be carrying the virus and the entire grade was ordered to quarantine at home. Then a ninth-grader tested positive, and the school was shut down.

"It was a mistake to go back to school in this format," the teacher said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because teachers were ordered not to speak with the press and she feared losing her job if identified.

Across Israel, many parents have yanked their children from schools that remain open. When the Collège des Frères, a French Roman Catholic school in the city of Jaffa, announced that the father of some students had tested positive for the virus, his children's classmates were sent home — but other parents pulled their children out, too.

Dr. Arnon Afek, who is helping manage Israel's coronavirus response, played down the outbreak, saying a spike in cases was expected when schools reopened. "It wasn't a surprise," he said. "It happened also in South Korea and Singapore."

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.