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Students suffer heatstroke as schools lack air conditioners, prevention measures

A semester-end ceremony before summer break is held using a television in a classroom to prevent heatstroke, at Nagoya Municipal Elementary School in Nagoya's Nishi Ward, on July 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

Students from elementary through high school have been repeatedly sent to hospitals amid the deadly heat wave due to symptoms of heatstroke, statistics revealing that some schools not only lack air conditioners, but also a sufficient system to ensure children's safety.

With plenty of opportunities for students to visit their school during summer break, such as to use the facility's pool and for extracurricular activities, parents and guardians worry about what can be done to keep them safe amid the record heat.

"Teachers need to be conscious of being blinded by normalcy bias," said journalist Toshimasa Ota, who specializes in education. Normalcy bias is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to underestimate negative factors, even in life-threatening situations, in order to stay calm. He advised schools to "set guidelines according to temperatures and humidity, so teachers are prompted to make decisions," because "they may think 'everything is going to be fine if I just pay attention' otherwise."

There are many schools that do not have air conditioners. According to a Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology research in April 2017, an average of 41.7 percent of public elementary and junior high schools in Japan had installed air conditioner units.

Ryo Uchida, associate professor of the sociology of education at Nagoya University graduate school, emphasized, "Air conditioners are basic equipment that can prevent children from suffering heatstroke." According to Uchida, there is a clear divide between municipalities that have installed air conditioners in schools and ones that have not. "It is extremely unfair. The problem should be dealt with at once by the central government using subsidies and other means."

Parents and teachers are dismayed by the situation. A 39-year-old mother with a third-year elementary school boy in Tokyo said, "I was stunned by lack of risk awareness of the school." When her son was excused from swimming lessons due to health issues, he was ordered to sit and watch from the side of the pool that had no roof or shade for nearly two hours. "Please let him study in the library or the classroom instead."

"I personally feel the need to stop practices because there are no air conditioners installed in the gymnasium," admitted a 36-year-old female junior high school teacher who oversees the school basketball club in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo. "But even when I talk to the other teachers, they just agree with me and it ends there. It makes it difficult to actually stop the practices. Many students want to continue their extracurricular activities, and we can do nothing but watch over them so there are no accidents."

Uchida explained, "It is hard for individual teachers to change how students are excused during school assemblies or physical education classes. A top-down approach could change that with a single instruction." He hailed the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education for issuing a July 19 notice to avoid holding semester-end ceremonies at gymnasiums to high schools under its jurisdiction. "Rather than ignoring issues because of rules or traditions, the situation should be re-examined with determination," he said.

(Japanese original by Kasane Nakamura, General Digital News Center)

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The following is a list of cases in which elementary to high school students showed symptoms of heatstroke, summarized by the Mainichi Shimbun:

May 25 -- Nineteen students fell ill while running relays and jumping rope during a physical education class on the grounds of municipal junior high school in Kyoto in western Japan.

June 19 -- Eleven high school students fell ill while recording running times on the athletic track, in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture in northern Japan.

July 1 -- Six members of a high school baseball club including the manager fell ill during practice in Date, Fukushima Prefecture in northern Japan.

July 12 -- Six high school students playing volleyball and basketball fell ill in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southern Japan.

July 14 -- A junior high school boy in a soft tennis club collapsed after he was forced to run around the school building as punishment for a mistake, in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture in western Japan.

July 16 -- Five baseball club members at a private high school fell ill after practice, in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo.

July 17 -- A male first-year elementary school student died after losing consciousness when he returned from a field study at a nearby park, in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan.

July 18 -- Thirty-eight students suffered from headaches on the playground of a municipal elementary school while shooting aerial photography, in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan.

July 19 -- Fourteen high school students suffered numbness of hands and feet while attending a sports festival, in Hokuto, in the northernmost main island of Hokkaido; 25 high school students fell ill while taking lessons from a visiting lecturer in a ventilated gymnasium without air conditioning in Tokyo's Nerima Ward; and a female third-year municipal junior high school student fell ill after cleaning classrooms, in Iga, Mie Prefecture, in central Japan.

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