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Abe asks all schools in Japan to temporarily close over coronavirus

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces the government's plan to ask all schools in Japan to cancel classes from March 2 until spring break amid the spread of the new coronavirus in the country, during a meeting of the coronavirus task force headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on Feb. 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday the government will request all elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan to close from Monday until the end of a spring break through early April amid concern over the spread of the new coronavirus.

In a meeting of a government task force to fight the virus, Abe cited "children's health and safety" as the top priority and said the measure, which also includes schools for special needs education across Japan, is intended to better cope with a risk of infection to be generated by students and teachers spending long hours together.

Abe also asked schools to take the best possible steps to prevent infection, such as minimizing the number of participants, if they are to hold entrance exams and graduation ceremonies in the coming weeks.

Japan's school year ends in March and a new academic year typically starts in early April.

Abe announced the measure as opposition parties have stepped up criticism of his administration for not responding quickly enough, with the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients continuing to rise in Japan and the end of the outbreak of the China-originated, pneumonia-causing virus not yet in sight.

The number of confirmed infections in Japan topped 900 on Thursday, including over 700 from the Diamond Princess, a virus-hit cruise ship docked in Yokohama near Tokyo.

Given that schoolchildren are expected to stay home in the coming weeks, Abe requested that government agencies and companies allow workers to take days off so they can spend more time with their families.

Nursery schools will be excluded from the nationwide closure request, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Abe also instructed the government to "prepare necessary legislation to curb the spread of infections and minimize the impact on the lives of people as well as the economy."

Meanwhile, some schoolteachers expressed concern about the prime minister's request as they have to adjust class and event schedules.

"A one-month closure is unheard of and its impact will be significant," said a teacher at a public elementary school in Tokyo.

"I'm in the middle of discussions with my colleagues on how to determine grades for students and distribute them," he said.

Abe's announcement came as a number of schools have already decided to close or scale down their activities.

Earlier Thursday, the Osaka city government said it will temporarily close all city-run elementary and junior high schools, and kindergartens from the following day through March 13 amid the coronavirus outbreak.

It will diminish the scale of graduation ceremonies scheduled during the closure period by limiting the number of participants and shortening program hours as well, according to the most populated city in Japan outside the Tokyo metropolitan area.

"We will conduct a simultaneous shutdown to ensure safety and prevent expansion of infections," Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui said at a meeting with senior city officials.

During the closure, schools will gather information on health conditions of students from parents and report to the education board if they find any concerns.

In Tokyo, Ochanomizu University said the state-run institution will close affiliated kindergarten, elementary school, and junior and senior high schools from Friday for about a month until early April, following a spring break.

Prince Hisahito, the 13-year-old nephew of Emperor Naruhito, attends the junior high school affiliated with the university.

"I believe it's an unprecedented closure for such an extended period of time," a university official said.

Similarly, most of the 1,600 elementary and junior high schools on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido were already closed Thursday for a week.

The action came a day after the Hokkaido board of education urged local authorities to temporarily close all public and private elementary and junior high schools in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.

Machiko Inari, a 40-year-old resident of Hakodate, said she will take a week off to look after her daughter, a fifth-grader, and son, a kindergarten student.

"Although it will affect my work and co-workers, it's better if it reduces the risk of infection for children as the disease is still relatively unknown," she said.

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