The protective mask covering half her face could not hide the broad smile of little Mayaan Ben Itzhak as she reunited with her classmates after two long months of lockdown.
The seven-year-old carrying a big pink schoolbag was thrilled to see her friends Sunday at her school near Jerusalem, after weeks of distance learning imposed in Israel’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“She couldn’t sleep all night,” said her mother Lilia Ben Itzhak.
“My children go crazy at home, they needed to go back to school,” said the mother of three.
As part of a strategy aimed at getting Israel’s battered economy back on track, the government has announced the gradual reopening of schools from Sunday, the first day of the week in Israel.
Preschool and some primary classes have reopened, except in communities considered to still be at exceptionally high risk of COVID-19.
A country of about nine million people, Israel has officially recorded over 16,000 cases since it began testing, including around 230 deaths — one of the lowest mortality rates among countries hit by the pandemic.
More than 9,000 of those known to have been infected have since recovered.
Strict closure measures are now being eased as figures show a decline in the number of new cases.
– Arms outstretched –
“What a pleasure to see you children!” exclaimed Sigal Bar, principal of the school in Mevasseret Zion, a leafy community about 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Jerusalem, as she opened the gate.
Before letting the children in, she asked them to stretch out their arms to each side, to ensure sufficient social distancing, and to listen carefully to her instructions.
Each child must bring to school a face mask and written confirmation from their parents stating that they have no fever.
They may only sit one to a desk and will take their breaks separately from other groups.
“The parents really cooperate with us, we feel that they are grateful for our efforts to make everything go well,” Bar said, adding that she too had slept very little before the “unusual return”.
About 150 of the school’s 260 pupils returned to their classrooms, the walls papered with letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
According to the education ministry, schools have reopened in 80 percent of local districts, with the exception of some cities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Netanya as well as Arab communities.
– Not everyone agrees –
There were also many parents who preferred to keep their children at home even though local schools reopened.
Shirel Benoliel did not want to send her nine-year-old son to school in central Jerusalem, and intends to keep him and four siblings at home until the start of the new school year in September.
“Either there is no danger and everyone goes back to school, or it is dangerous and everyone stays at home,” she told AFP, saying that young children “are unable to stick to the rules”.
The authorities “say that schools must be reopened so that people can go to work but it is ridiculous to take the slightest risk to our children for economic reasons,” she said.
The Israeli economy was booming before the pandemic with an unemployment rate of just 3.4 percent.
The outbreak led to the closure of businesses, schools and universities and unemployment has spiralled to 27 percent.
– Roses and chocolates –
With the infection curve flattening out, the government last week authorised the reopening of many high street stores along with restaurants offering takeout, subject to strict social distancing and other regulations.
“I can understand the fears of some parents, but we have to get back to normal life,” said Assaf Shamir, head of the parents’ association for the Mevasseret shool.
“They have to go back to work and the kids have to go back to school, the economy needs it,” he said.
His daughter Shira, 10, is not yet back in class as children in her age group are only expected to return around June 1.
But on this sunny Sunday, she still came to school to offer a rose and a chocolate to each teacher who entered.
A little further, two children who were beside themselves with joy were finding it a challenge to respect the required personal distance.
From their school bags, each took out a small bottle in an encounter that showed how times have changed.
Each boasted of having the better brand of hand sanitiser.
Mevasseret Tsion (Israël) (AFP)