The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has released guidelines for reopening schools after nationwide closures to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in Japan.
Ending its earlier request for uniform school shutdowns, the government is now urging schools to take preventative measures against coronavirus infections on the premise of reopening the facilities in April, when the new academic year starts in Japan.
The countrywide school closures came into effect on March 2 following a political decision by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The move was not based on experts' opinions, and the basis for his decision has been left unclear.
Initially, the government had planned to release criteria for judging whether to reopen schools based on a report from an expert panel meeting on March 19, but no clear green light for school resumptions was given at the meeting. In spite of this, the government went ahead with its latest decision to allow schools to reopen "in principle."
Education minister Koichi Hagiuda explained at a press conference, "Public awareness about preventing the spread of infections is growing." But this alone is not a sufficient basis for the policy change. We are inclined to wonder if the government found it hard to specify the reason for sending children back to school because the nationwide school closures lacked sufficient grounds in the first place.
Prolonged school shutdowns have caused serious repercussions in various corners of civil life. Numerous challenges have emerged, such as delays in children's studies and the need to create places for children to stay if their parents cannot take time off from work to care for them. The government was apparently pressed to reverse its policy under these circumstances.
However, the number of people infected with the new coronavirus has been on the rise, mainly in urban areas. We can hardly say the situation has improved compared to when the school closures commenced. Some parents are increasingly worried if it is truly safe to send their children back to school.
In areas where coronavirus infections have spread, local governments are under pressure to decide whether to reopen schools from April. They may well be confused, as the national government has not provided any clear grounds or criteria for allowing schools to reopen.
The education ministry guidelines go no further than to list up points to note once schools are restarted, such as making sure to ventilate classrooms thoroughly, and are insufficient as reference material for school operators that are trying to decide whether to resume classes.
The guidelines also call for assessing the need to close schools again if a student is found infected, after taking the regional status of infections into consideration in a comprehensive manner.
Leaving such decisions up to local governments could only cause confusion. The national government is urged to establish a system to respond to inquiries from local bodies over these pressing issues.