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Japan schools open for young kids whose parents can't be home after sudden closures

Children are seen studying on their own in a science room at Kitaurawa Elementary School in Saitama's Urawa Ward on March 2, 2020. The school suspended classes from March 2 to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus but is open for children whose parents can't be home due to work or other commitments. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

SAITAMA -- Following calls from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to close as part of efforts to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, a majority of elementary, junior high and high schools and other educational institutions nationwide temporarily ceased lessons from March 2.

But due to the existence of households where children's guardians both work, among other circumstances, which mean that school-age kids would be left at home without adult supervision, some elementary schools are opening up their facilities. For the same reasons, some after-school day care centers are running from the morning.

From March 2 to 13, 167 municipal schools will close in the city of Saitama in the east Japan prefecture of the same name, north of Tokyo. But schools are accepting children from the early grades of elementary school whose parents are having difficulty being home due to work or other commitments.

At around 8 a.m. on March 2, masked children slowly filed in from the cold rain to Kitaurawa Elementary School in the city's Urawa Ward. While the school is technically closed and lunch will not be served as normal, so their midday meals differ based on what has been prepared for them at home. One mother who saw off her daughters said, "I'm thankful even for this." In under an hour, 50 children had arrived at the school.

Inside, special classrooms, including the home economics classroom and library room, have been opened. The children sit spaced out from one another, with one child to a table, or two if they are siblings. To keep the room ventilated, the windows are left open slightly, and there were some children studying with their coats on.

One first grader and her mother, 42, entered the classroom and filled in a planning sheet for the subjects the little girl should study on March 2, and they confirmed the content together. The subjects assigned for the day included arithmetic and "hiragana" phonetic character writing practice.

"I was at a loss as to what to do, so it's a big help," the mother said, as neither she nor her husband can take time off from work to look after their daughter. Over the weekend she had hurried out to buy an exercise book her child could use to study alone. Shortly after, it was time for the mother to head to her job. "Mom, are you going?" her daughter asked. "I've got to go to work," she told her. The mother and daughter touched hands briefly, and then the 42-year-old quickly left the classroom.

The acceptance of early year elementary school students will continue on weekdays until March 13, and runs from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The school's principal, Satoshi Masuko, said, "We are taking thorough measures to prevent the spread of infections."

(Japanese original by Yuka Narita, City News Department)

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