Focusing on Online Learning in the Age of a Pandemic

Sometimes the best is just not good enough. This is what Israel is discovering in the midst of a global pandemic, where the country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign became a potential model for the rest of the world.

Over 9.2 million people, comprising about seven percent of Israel’s population, had already received Covid vaccinations before the end of 2020, with the Health Ministry estimating that 90% of the country’s “at-risk” population would receive the second of two vaccinations before January is out.

Despite this remarkable achievement, Israel is currently in its third national coronavirus lockdown, with the Israeli Health Ministry seeking an extension of the lockdown by at least one week. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, calling for a strict, full lockdown, said, “We need a full lockdown in the State of Israel, without non-essential work, with an education system closure, with zero gatherings.” The lockdown agreement reached by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, did include closure of the entire education sector, except special education programs, which are kept open to ensure the emotional and treatment needs of these students are met.

The decision to lock down was also significantly influenced by an alarming projection by Israel’s public research university, the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, that the country’s Covid infection rate could increase to 46,000 new daily cases by February if the government did not take timely action. For a country with 9 million people, this indicated a dire situation. This was compounded by the fact that the faster-spreading variant of the virus discovered in the UK was also found in four people in Israel, in December 2020, then subsequently in at least 30 cases.

The health system is overwhelmed not only in Israel, but also in the West Bank and Gaza, with a combined  total of over 4,700 Covid deaths recorded. While controlling the spread of the disease, there is also an effort to ease the economic consequences of the crisis, hoping for an “accordion effect,” of stopping economic activity when ordered, and immediately resuming when controls are lifted.

Under Israel’s current lockdown, gatherings are reduced to five people in a confined space and 10 people outside, while people are only allowed to go up to 1,000 meters from their houses, unless it is to obtain essential services, for vaccination or sports.

With the lockdown, Israel hopes to buy more time to vaccinate a larger proportion of its population; the ensuing immunity is expected to ease the burden on Israel’s overstretched and exhausted health system and frontline workers.

In fact, Israel’s vaccination program for its citizens, which began mid-December 2020, was seen as one of the speediest in the world, focused on reaching all vulnerable citizens by late January.

Moreover, Tel Aviv became Israel’s first city to vaccinate most of its teachers, with 5000 of its 8000 teachers already vaccinated. The Teacher’s Union had earlier communicated a request for all teachers across the country to be vaccinated as a priority group, not only the over 60s, which was declined by the Health Ministry.

The rejection of making all teachers a priority group was also probably because the studies for K-12 moved to online learning, and education for college degrees continues to embrace online learning, as it did with the start of the pandemic.

Although parents had protested the closure of schools, the government decision to close schools during the current lockdown seems unlikely to change, especially in light of the recent Health Ministry statistics showing a sharp increase in the numbers of infected children and teenagers to over 50,000 in the month of January. Health Minister Edelstein spoke of these numbers, referring to a letter of concern sent by the Israeli Association of Pediatrics, on the increase of Covid cases among children. “This is something we did not witness in previous waves of corona,” he said. In the second wave of coronavirus in Israel during late 2020, the numbers of children and teens among the infected amounted to 29% of new cases. Currently, children and teens are 40% of new cases.

However, even as the Israeli healthcare system is hard put to explain this rapid rise among the younger population, there is concern it could be due to the British mutated virus that is spreading rapidly across Israel.

In this situation, the likelihood of schools opening immediately once Israel emerges from this third lockdown seems remote. There is also the memory of grim consequences of reopening schools too early in May 2020, which Eli Waxman, professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who headed the team of pandemic advisors to the government, called “a major failure.” Hundreds of schools were forced to close again, and tens of thousands of students and teachers across the country were forced to quarantine. Significantly, 60% of the students who got infected then were asymptomatic, while the teachers suffered more, with some hospitalized. Worse still, the Health Ministry, with inadequate infrastructure and resources, failed to make contact-tracing a priority.

With the wisdom of hindsight, a professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University, Dr. Hagai Levine subsequently advised a gradual and careful opening of the education system, with various limits in place. Another professor of epidemiology at the Hebrew University, Dr. Ora Paltiel said, “We strongly believe the children are the victims of Covid management and not of Covid disease.”

These views are in line with the perspective of the Israeli Health Minister, that reopening all grades of schools “will surely extend closure.” Therefore, online learning appears to be the most logical strategy to follow in the midst of the pandemic. After all, as American philosopher John Dewey once said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

About the Author
Scientist turned techie. Founder at Neliti & Reputio. Interested in sharing lessons learnt from Tel Aviv's bustling technology ecosystem.
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