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After-school services for impaired children strained amid Japan school closures

The Karugamo center that caters to special needs children is seen with antiviral equipment set out, in Higashikurume, Tokyo, on March 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

TOKYO -- With schools temporarily closed across Japan due to the novel coronavirus, providers of after-school and other day services for specials needs children are being placed under additional strain as they extend their hours to look after such children in place of their regular schools.

Although the situation has presented difficulties, with many children bristling at having to wear masks, among other issues, many after-school services have extended their usual opening hours into the mornings, and staff are continuing to provide care while working to prevent infections.

"I'm glad that there's an after-school service accepting kids," said one relieved mother, 48, who works at a social welfare facility in the suburban city of Higashikurume in Tokyo. Her eldest son, who is intellectually impaired, is aged 17 and in his third year at a special education high school in the capital, which has temporarily closed following the government's call for nationwide closures.

Because of his condition, the teen cannot be left home alone. The Karugamo after-school service in Higashikurume, which he previously used after school and at other times, has extended its opening hours to cover mornings too, and so he is now there from the new, earlier time.

In response to the school closures, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had prefectural governments and other authorities ask social welfare service centers, which take care of children with impairments after school or during long vacation periods, across Japan to extend their opening hours. The request was based on provisions in the Child Welfare Act.

In accordance with this, Karugamo changed its regular opening hours -- from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. -- to open at 8:30 a.m. There are now days where it has to accept more than its usual limit of 10 children, as applications to facilities with extended opening hours are surging. During the day, 20 people including staff pack the 50-square-meter center.

Although staff instruct the children to wear masks, there are kids under their care who remove them or chew them off. Others also try to lark about near other people, and it has been taxing for staff to fully enact disease prevention measures.

For some children, the change in environment has apparently increased their stress levels to a point of panic or leading them to taking out their anger on objects. Karugamo head Daisuke Shimoda expressed reservations about the government's decisions, saying, "To what extent did the national government consider the reality for children with impairments? I wonder, was it appropriate to carry out blanket closures of special needs schools?"

Some after-school and other day services actually temporarily closed over concerns about people gathering in confined areas. One in the city of Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture, east Tokyo, stopped accepting children for about two weeks starting at the end of February. But now it has reopened.

The facility has also had requests from people to accept their children from the morning, but fears that the risk of infection will be increased by being open longer mean the center is currently maintaining its usual afternoon-only times.

If it pursues its usual practices, then from the end of March it will begin accepting children in the mornings as part of its spring vacation measures. But a representative indicated that it remains uncertain as to how it will proceed, saying, "We're unsure yet what the best approach is."

(Japanese original by Buntaro Saito, City News Department)

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