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'We're really stretched to our limits': School life in Japan in the age of coronavirus

Students try on face shields at a public junior high school in the Aichi Prefecture city of Miyoshi on May 21, 2020. Parts of the image have been altered. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

As many schools in metropolitan areas prepare to reopen in June as a result of the Japanese government lifting its state of emergency declaration over the novel coronavirus, those on the ground are faced with challenges including establishing countermeasures against the spread of the virus, and catching students up on academic work that they have fallen behind on while schools nationwide were closed.

At Mito Municipal Shinso Elementary School in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, a third-grade calligraphy class was held at the second-floor "open space" on May 20. The school had implemented dispersed school attendance starting late April, and on this day, the class had 11 students -- about half the actual number of students in the class. There was enough space to leave open a 2-meter interval between the students. The principal, Kenji Nakano, explained that because the space was well-ventilated, it was useful for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The windows in all the classrooms were open, and students made sure not to sit in chairs directly next to each other.

The state of emergency declaration was lifted for Ibaraki Prefecture on May 14, and from June 1 onward, all students will be attending school at the same time. For the time being, maintaining physical distance between students will be a major challenge, not only during class, but also during breaks. "We will advise students not to give each other high-fives or to touch each other playing tag, but I believe we will run into some difficulty," Nakano said.

An infection prevention manual for schools that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released on May 22 denotes the physical distance that must be secured between students in school depending on the infection levels in the community. It is possible, however, that by trying to arrange desks according to these guidelines, all the desks necessary for students in a class may not fit in the room. What is a school supposed to do if there is not enough space?

The Nagano prefectural city of Chino, which is planning to resume regular classes at its schools on June 1, is considering using community centers for classes. There are 10 in the city, and they are located next to schools. But how teachers and other staff will manage to oversee all of their students remains to be seen. "We're really stretched to our limits," an official with the Chino Municipal Board of Education said. "We would like to deliberate various options including asking retired people to come back to work for us."

Fully implementing infection prevention measures will have an impact on classes. The education ministry's manual dictates that even if a community's spread of infection is at its lowest -- level 1 -- chorus and the playing of wind instruments, which are done in close proximity indoors, can be carried out only if the greatest anti-infection precautions are taken. Saga Girls' High School attached to Saga Women's Junior College, in Saga in southwestern Japan, has a musical course. The schools resumed classes on May 14, but in singing classes, the windows are opened and all students must wear masks. They keep the volume of their voices low, and using string cut into 2 meters placed on the floor, students keep that much distance from each other.

English teachers, meanwhile, are racking their brains over the difficulty of practicing conversation and pronunciation with masks on and while maintaining distance from students, and the students from each other. An English teacher at a public school in one of Tokyo's 23 wards is running various measures through his head in preparation for the June 1 resumption of school. Should he have students read out loud facing the wall? Should students practice conversation together with their backs to each other? "Honestly, I don't know what will be possible, but I don't want to give up on helping the students learn real live English," he said.

Tottori Municipal Konan Gakuen, which is a combined elementary and junior high school that places emphasis on English-language education, has decreased opportunities for face-to-face learning as much as possible. But principal Teruo Kawakami said, "We are struggling with the fear that the students may not acquire the communication skills and correct pronunciation that they would otherwise have been able to acquire."

There are some municipal governments that have armed their students with "tools" on their own. The Miyoshi Municipal Government in the central Japanese prefecture of Aichi bought and distributed approximately 2,500 face shields for all students at municipal junior high schools, and teachers and others at elementary and junior high schools. They have received good reviews from schools that have already begun to use them.

In this fiscal year's second supplementary budget that was passed on May 27, the government decided it would provide some 1 million to 3 million yen per elementary school, junior high school, high school and special education school for infection prevention measures and to dispatch some 3,100 extra teachers.

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Richi Tanaka and Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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