Israel starts new school year as COVID-19 cases surge

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Israel reopened its schools Wednesday after the summer break but the coronavirus forced many students to stay home amid an infection surge fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant.

Of the 2.4 million children due to attend educational institutions from kindergarten to high school, 250,000 were kept home on the first day of school, said the education ministry.

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Some 90,000 of them were infected with COVID-19 or in quarantine, a ministry spokeswoman told AFP. Another 150,000 were either in cities with high virus rates, or enrolled in classes which did not open due to low vaccination rates.

Israel has been offering vaccines to those aged 12 and up, and has refrained from opening high school classrooms in which fewer than 70 percent of pupils are vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the health ministry had confirmed 10,947 new virus cases for the previous day, the highest ever daily tally.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett defended the government’s decision to open schools despite the leap in infections, stressing that he wanted to avoid measures that would have kept children – and their parents – at home.

“We learned this year that there is another important thing,” he said at a school in the southern city of Yeruham. “And that is livelihood – to make sure that all the people of Israel can work and earn a decent living, even during the coronavirus, because it is a sacred thing.”

Before Wednesday’s school reopening, Israeli conducted hundreds of thousands of serological tests on children under the age of 12 to determine if they had developed antibody protection after contracting COVID-19.

The government also distributed millions of antibody tests for pupils to take at home prior to the first day of school.

About 60 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million residents have received two shots of the vaccine, including 80 percent of adults.

Israel was in December one of the first countries to launch a national vaccination campaign, which brought daily infections down to a trickle and allowed the lifting in June of nearly all pandemic restrictions.

Several measures have since been reimposed, including in-door mask wearing, limits on gatherings and the need to present proof of vaccination for entry to certain facilities.

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