At least 32 public schools in western Japan devastated by the recent torrential rains will remain closed for the time being and enter into summer vacation, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.
All of the schools sustained substantial damage caused by the downpours, and some are accepting evacuees or are being used to store local debris from the floods and landslides.
Teachers and school officials were thrown into confusion as they tried to cope with waves of people seeking help. Now the schools need to grapple with the challenging task of providing psychological care to children who underwent stressful situations caused by the disasters.
According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 204 public elementary, junior high and high schools as well as other educational institutions in four prefectures were closed as of July 13. Of them, 16 schools in Ehime Prefecture gave up on reopening before the summer vacation, while there were 10 such schools in Okayama Prefecture, five in Hiroshima Prefecture and one in Fukuoka Prefecture. Officials of other schools say they have no idea when they can resume classes.
In the city of Ozu in Ehime Prefecture, where many houses were submerged by the flooding of the Hijikawa River, 11 elementary and junior high schools closed after the rains and started summer vacation on July 14, a week earlier than usual. The second semester is scheduled to begin on Aug. 27, a week earlier than an average year.
Meanwhile, 10 schools have remained closed since July 9 in the Mabicho district in the city of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, where severe flooding killed dozens of residents. The schools were heavily damaged, with some still suffering from flooding or broken windows. The Kurashiki Municipal Mabihigashi Junior High School has been turned into a temporary garbage dump with a mountain of debris from nearby areas sitting on its ground.
The Kurashiki Municipal Okada Elementary School has been accepting evacuees since around midnight on July 6. The school's gymnasium was filled with more people than the facility can accommodate when a female teacher rushed to the scene following a phone call from a city official that there were too many people there. "People who could not enter the gym were sitting or standing on the corridor connecting the main school building to the gym," the teacher recalled.
Only three of the 24 designated evacuation centers in that district managed to open their doors to residents seeking help because many others were in areas where flooding was expected. One of the three centers -- all of them elementary schools -- was inundated with more than 2,000 evacuees although it was designed to hold only about 220 pupils. Food was scarce and it took 15 hours after local residents started to pour in before emergency aid arrived.
The education ministry said that 58 schools mainly in three prefectures -- Hiroshima, Okayama and Ehime -- were accepting evacuees as of July 13. And turning schools into temporary shelters is causing additional issues for the local community.
About 90 residents of the Yanohigashi district of Aki Ward in the city of Hiroshima, which was devastated by a massive landslide, were evacuated to a municipal school in the area, and the municipal board of education proposed on July 12 to move them to another school about 1 kilometer north of the facility. The city made the offer because the current evacuation facility was a gymnasium without sufficient air conditioning and they were concerned that some of the evacuees may develop health issues because of that issue. The school also planned to reopen soon.
But the residents vehemently opposed the city's proposal because the new evacuation facility was in a low-lying area unlike the current one that is in an upland area. Moreover, an evacuation advisory was still in place for the area including the new location. Eventually, the city ended up withdrawing the plan to move evacuees. "I felt like moving (to the new location) for the children without being selfish, but ...," confided one resident, revealing the mixed emotions among some evacuees.
Later, with all the evacuees present, it was decided that the elementary school will reopen on July 17. Juniji Konishi, deputy principal of the school, said, "The top priority should be reconstruction. At the same time we want to discuss ways so that children can commute to school safely."
Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many schools remained closed for long periods of time while they served as evacuation shelters, causing stress among school teachers and officials. A survey by a union of prefectural school teachers in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan found that some schools functioned as temporary shelters for three months or more, and some teachers complained that they felt inconvenience and stress because they didn't know how long the situation would continue.
In the Mabicho district in Kurashiki, schools will remain closed and summer vacation begins in the meantime. An official of the municipal board of education said, "Teachers don't like the fact that they will enter summer vacation without seeing the children, and they are worried (about ramifications of the prolonged separation)."
Takashi Kano, principal of Okada elementary, said that currently he and his teachers do not have the capacity to check on the physical status of every single child. He knows where the students are, but is unable to deliver report cards to them, which are usually given to pupils before summer vacation sets in. "I don't know when the school can open again, and I am not sure if we can hand (the reports to the children) in September after the vacation is over," said Kano, with apparent concern in his voice about the unpredictable future.
Meanwhile, efforts are spreading across areas affected by the recent rains to provide psychological care to children by offering them places to temporarily stay.
At a kindergarten near an evacuation center in the Mabicho district, "Save the Children," an international nongovernmental organization, opened a kids' play area on July 15 and 16. The NGO made the arrangement so that workers at a local children's facility, where many children gather while their parents and guardians work to remove debris, can take some rest. Some 80 kids aged between 3 and 12 played at the facility. Save the Children offered support to evacuees in the aftermath of the 2011 quake disaster or the powerful 2016 earthquakes that hit Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern main island of Kyushu.
Young children have less capacity to express their concerns verbally, and any stress they feel can appear in their actions. The NGO's play area was designed to offer a place where children can mingle with those around their age and feel at ease and relieve stress. Noriko Tashiro, who is in charge of media relations at the organization, said that the NGO "intends to offer children a place where they can feel like children."
In 2013, Save the Children compiled a guideline called "psychological first aid for children." The advisory calls for people to first find out the situation a child faces, then try to be with them without asking too many questions, and offer support the child really needs.
In the city of Kure in Hiroshima Prefecture, which was also hit hard by the rains and landslides, a group called "Firste," consisting of mothers with preschool-age children, organized an event where mothers and children can play together at a local park from July 11 through 13. Some 125 children and parents took part in response to invitations sent via social media. The participants included people without running water at their homes who had to spend hours lining up to receive drinking water or have a bath and thus cannot care enough for their children. Some mothers chose to remain at home considering the tough situations other people face. Yuko Mitsui, a mother of two children aged 1 and 3 who represents the group, explained that mothers and children tend to develop anxiety when they remain inside homes or evacuation centers.
Mafumi Usui, professor of sociopsychology at the Niigata Seiryo University graduate school, says that when caring for children after a disaster, one needs to try to quickly ease any stress they feel in the initial stages. "Children release their emotions through playing, so you should not postpone making places where children can play, thinking that the timing is not appropriate," he said. The professor also advised that children need healing through hugs and other affectionate actions by their parents or guardians. "When parents get unstable, children get worried. People around them should offer a helping hand, so that parents don't get too nervous."
(Japanese original by Yumi Shibamura, Osaka Bureau, Ryoko Kijima, Matsuyama Bureau, Nana Hayashida, Okayama Bureau, and Sayaka Kamohara, Izumisano Local Bureau)