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Israel plans gradual return to school from May 3

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Jérusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told education officials on Monday to prepare to reopen some classrooms next week after a six-week closure, his office said.

The planned school reopening, part of a gradual easing of coronavirus restrictions, came as the country marked a scaled-down Remembrance Day, during which military cemeteries remained closed.

In a statement, Netanyahu's office said educational institutions would reopen in stages from Sunday.

It added that the plan was conditional on there being no increase in coronavirus infection rates.

A country of about nine million people, Israel has officially recorded over 15,000 cases of COVID-19, including around 200 deaths; one of the lowest mortality rates among countries hit by the pandemic.

While the economy was booming before the outbreak, unemployment has increased to 27 percent. As the infection rate slows, the government is looking to gradually get people back to work.

Many high street stores along with restaurants offering takeout reopened Sunday, subject to strict social distancing and other regulations.

Monday's statement said that the schools plan, subject to a situation assessment on Friday, would start with kindergartens hosting small groups of children on different days.

Primary schoolchildren would follow, also in small classes.

Childcare is vital to getting working parents back on the job.

Senior finance ministry official Lev Drucker said in an online press briefing that the schools closure was costing the Israeli economy an estimated 170 million shekels (45 million euros) a day.

A reopening plan for children in communities with a high infection rate was still being debated, Netanyahu's office said.

Chief among them are neighbourhoods and cities populated mainly by ultra-Orthodox Jews, often in crowded conditions where the disease thrives.

At the beginning of the crisis, many ultra-Orthodox did not follow social distancing rules and opposed the closure of synagogues.

Their disproportionately high infection rate forced the imposition of exceptional containment measures in those communities, including a beefed up military presence in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

- Remembrance Day -

The reopening of shops, eateries and schools contrasted with the nationwide closure of military cemeteries Monday as Israel marked its annual day of remembrance for soldiers who died in service and civilians killed in militant attacks.

Families typically gather at the gravesides of fallen relatives across Israel's 53 military cemeteries.

They are often crowded so the government, fearing a spike in contagion, locked the gates, angering many bereaved relatives.

The easing on commerce came as Netanyahu and recent election opponent Benny Gantz, were still to finalise the formation of a unity government to combat the public health crisis and its associated economic challenges.

Latest projections show Israel's gross domestic product contracting by 5.4 percent in 2020, Drucker said.

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