As everyone in Israel scrambled to process the horrific trauma that unfolded on Saturday, October 7 – the barbaric massacre in the South and barrages of incoming missiles from Gaza that propelled Israel into an immediate state of war – parents went into autopilot mode. Just as they began to process the communal pain of the murdered, lost, and kidnapped, many were immediately confronted with orders to report to reserve duty.
School-age children who had been preparing to go back to school after the long holiday break were suddenly left in limbo. Many of their fathers and teachers were called to the battlefront.
“On October 7, even though we weren’t sure what was going on, we immediately opened a helpline with a psychologist available for parents and students,” said Inna Saltzman, deputy director-general of the Education Ministry. “We opened a situation room with meetings twice a day with the education minister for all the regional administrators, in person and online.
“Our immediate response was to open a framework for those who have first-degree relationships with people who were killed, wounded, or kidnapped,” she detailed. “Each family gets special support from a member of the Education Department. Likewise, when families have someone in the army, we have regional managers to help support the family – with everything from extra learning sessions to psychological support. These services are administered regionally.”
Trying to get schools running during Israel-Hamas war
In an interactive Facebook conference from the situation room on Sunday, October 22, Education Minister Yoav Kisch assured the public that the ministry is doing everything it can to create a physical return to school. In some places, according to Kisch, not all children are attending, even when the schools are in progress. In others, because of the location, families were evacuated from their homes, and three new schools were created – in Eilat, in the Dead Sea area, and in the central Arava, to where many were relocated.
Kisch noted that guidelines were created to support these families, and a total of 10,000 laptops will be distributed for distance learning. As it did during the pandemic, the ministry began operating a virtual school in accordance with the emergency situation.
GETTING BACK to routine is very important, according to Rivka Felsenstein, school therapist and supervisor in the Shomron school system. The mother of five deployed soldiers, she spends her spare time helping her grandchildren acclimate to the new norms. “Our overall goal is to create some kind of normalcy in this abnormal situation by creating some kind of learning for all students,” she said.
“We found that children living in danger zones, in areas with many sirens, tend to have disrupted sleep and interrupted daily activities,” said Felsenstein. “They have more fears, as do their parents. They need to feel secure and safe before any kind of school routine can be discussed. The Education Ministry wants to create continuity and routine in a social environment with authority figures, including therapists.”
She remembers living in Israel as a schoolchild herself during the Yom Kippur War, when the schools opened even over the Sukkot holidays to give children a solid framework. Since the regulations and safety rules have changed, it took a little longer this time.
“Routines begin with going back and learning,” Saltzman said. “We started online because we understood that even though it’s hard, children have to maintain some kind of structure. Where possible, we gave guidelines to help the parents plan their children’s days for social and emotional support with a little bit of learning – because learning enables them to heal.”
“UNDERSTANDABLY, THE education system stopped for about a week,” said Oshi Ellman, a Ra’anana resident and mother of four. Other parents grappling with their own angst, their children’s tension, and no initial framework for school described those first days as the week from hell.
“The second week of the war in Ra’anana, we started Zooms for a few hours each day. It wasn’t real education, but they were trying.”
She said that in the second week, the framework was like corona times, where all the kids were home – some on laptops, some on phones; sometimes engaged, sometimes distracted.
“In Ra’anana we are less affected, but the Education Ministry has granted authority to the municipalities to decide how to handle it in their own cities,” Ellman said, noting that the issue with this is that everyone is handling school schedules differently. While the primary school was going back solely for social and emotional support for an hour and a half, parents still had to get their kids up and ready for school and be nearby. The secondary schools, she said, were set to go back for three hours until the municipality changed the plan, and school was called off again.
“Chugim [extracurricular activities] are in progress, but school is off,” she said. “I understand that it’s exceptionally hard to manage. However, it would be helpful to the parents, and particularly to the children, who need a routine and educational, emotional, and psychological support, if there was a regular solution to school instead of the children simply remaining home for days on end – especially as it is likely that the situation will remain uncertain for weeks to come.”
THE EVER-CHANGING war climate requires coordination by the Education Ministry and many other entities. According to a ministry handout, guidelines are in place for all age groups, from birth to 18.
Brian Thau is a high school English teacher for Hebrew speakers in two Jerusalem schools. He has been conducting his classes on Zoom. For children who need structure, he says, Zoom can be challenging.
“We are hoping to go back next week,” he said. “If the teacher has the right attitude and is entertaining, Zoom can work. I try to have a lot of humor in my classes, and I start my lessons with a joke. Students tell me that I’m one funny dude and they enjoy my class.”
Because the students did not have their books, he couldn’t assign reading homework. He established some Zoom Rules to try to maintain order.
“They all must keep their cameras on and their microphones on mute so they can’t just open their phones and walk away; and they must raise their hands just like in classroom. It’s not simple, but the kids are getting used to it. I look forward to going back to actual class.
“Based on the corona experience, the kids should bounce back. A lot of our staff has gone to the reserves. Some dedicated teachers came back from sabbatical to help replace those teachers,” he said.
ABOUT 300,000 children in the South and North are not in school; and depending on the situation, they may be out for a while, according to Arie Mor, security director for the Education Ministry.
“We have had procedures for almost 30 years and have had children practice getting to the shelters in time,” he explained. “We consult with the army that gives the orders. Each area has its own regulations. In the South and the North there is no school activity, but there is Zoom and the teachers are in contact with the children. In other areas, there must be enough space in the shelter for all the children. If there is only 50% capacity, then only 50% of the school population can attend at one time. They may have to stagger the hours or days.”
More than 80% of the schools in the country can accommodate their school populations. Where there is no shelter, the schools or kindergartens can relocate.
Mor insisted there is no risk to the children. “There are a lot of things to be checked before they can attend physically or not. Schools have security guards, but in some areas we have increased the number of guards.
“After two weeks, most of Israel’s population can go to school. Some parents choose not to send their kids.”
He said the principals are given the final say. They need to first confirm that they have enough shelter capacity and enough teachers (some have been drafted, and others are caring for children while their husbands are in the army). He said they can be flexible in their approach, but it is a regional decision.
“The situation is dynamic and changes day by day and according to region,” Kisch explained. “Home Front Command devised a color-coded system. If you are in a green zone, children can go back to school with no exceptions; in light blue areas, children can go back to school with limitations, depending on the shelter situation of the school. Dark blue zones offer distance learning and keeping up with the children as much as possible by phone.”
According to Kisch, instructions are expected to change a lot, so he urges people to check the Home Front Command website for updates (www.oref.org.il/en).
UNLIKE DURING the pandemic, when they were able to get special education services up and running fairly quickly, Saltzman said now they couldn’t react as quickly. “As always, special education is first priority. Our teachers are even allowed to visit children in their homes if needed.
“The Education Ministry uses all the social networks and publishes on Facebook and Instagram, as well as a special website (parents.education.gov.il/prhnet/gov-education/safety/iron-swords-qa) to reach parents, educators, and students,” Saltzman added. “It’s different than corona. While then we addressed social and emotional issues, during war we encourage principals to take the initiative and have the students get involved. The children need to be active; they need to volunteer, do something for soldiers, for the war effort. When they do that, it empowers them.”
Felsenstein agreed that volunteering is a huge part of healing for children. She helped her grandchildren make 50 hamburgers for a group of soldiers. “We are a nation of strength, and there is a lot of voluntary work to get the children involved in,” she said.
But as we get children involved in the war effort and meet with friends at school, do we have to worry about their exposure to the news?
“As an Israeli living here, all fathers go to reserves. It’s a fact of life. If children are anxious, it may mean they are getting information they shouldn’t have,” Felsenstein warned. “Parents can help children cope by keeping to routines of basics, which include regulating their own emotions so they can act as figures providing a sense of safety, security, and calm. Parents must control their news intake and keep their children away from graphic pictures and videos that can damage the soul and cause secondary trauma.
“ They should create activities that generate a sense of control, help them with relaxation techniques, and enjoy family time together. And to contribute to others so everyone can benefit from the positive actions of hessed (loving-kindness),” she urged.
“Don’t hide the facts,” Saltzman said, “ but try to assess what the children know, how they feel, and make it age-appropriate.” ❖