JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel partly reopened nurseries and kindergartens on Sunday, increasing the number of children who have returned to the education system as part of efforts to revive the economy by easing coronavirus restrictions.
Israel shut down the education system in mid-March as contagions spiked. With the new case rate levelling out, classes resumed last week, for the first three and last two grades of school, freeing up some parents to go back to work.
As with school pupils, preschoolers were allowed back with enhanced hygiene requirements and with numbers capped - 17 for each nursery, 18 for each kindergarten - to allow for social distancing. Within each kindergarten, children were sub-divided into groups of nine.
State-run kindergartens are, for now, accommodating the overflow by admitting children on a rotating half-week basis. Nurseries, by contrast, have allowed only 70% of children back, on full-week schedules, the Labour and Welfare Ministry said.
In selecting which nursery children return, staff give priority to those from broken families or with single or working mothers, a Labour and Welfare Ministry spokeswoman said. "We are trying to find creative solutions for the other 30%," she said.
Sunday's turn-out rate was 60% for the kindergartens and 90% of those eligible for the nurseries, government officials said. Some parents have preferred to keep their children home for fear of infection.
Sunday is the beginning of Israel's working week.
Israel, with a population of about nine million, has reported 16,477 new coronavirus cases and 249 deaths. Unemployment has hit 27% as a result of business closures and home-confinements.
Officials have said that if the partial reopening of schools and return of preschoolers does not unleash uncontrollable new contagions, the rest of Israel's educational system could be operating by the end of May.
The Education Ministry is also looking at the possibility of extending studies into the summer holiday to make up for lost time.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Pravin Char)