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Japan's universities shunning in-person classes due to virus variants, delayed vaccinations

A student at Nippon Sport Science University is vaccinated against the coronavirus in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on June 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- As universities reopen after the long summer break, many institutions in Japan remain reluctant to resume in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Not only colleges that are behind in vaccinating students and faculty staff against the virus, but also schools that have quickly proceeded with inoculations fear that restarting face-to-face classes would be "premature" in light of the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, among other reasons.

    Tokyo-based Hosei University initially planned to complete schoolwide inoculations during the summer break before starting the fall semester on Sept. 17. However, due to a delay in the vaccine rollout across the country, the second round of shots is now scheduled to end on Oct. 2. In consideration of the capital being under the state of emergency over the virus, the school plans to maintain online classes in principle until Oct. 2, with the exception of laboratory experiments, hands-on practical programs and seminar sessions. The institution was to announce its policy for classes after that date on Sept. 24.

    "We are considering the transition to classes primarily on a face-to-face basis, but we need to ascertain the infection status. We have to make a careful decision," said a public relations representative at the private university.

    At Kyushu Sangyo University in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka, where the fall semester began on Sept. 13, classes are basically given online, with the exception of practical programs. Although the institution had initially planned to wrap up campus-wide inoculations during the summer break, the end date was pushed back to mid-October. But even if the vaccinations had completed as planned, "it would have been difficult to reopen in-person classes considering the situation" in which infection numbers spiked across the nation during the summer, according to a school representative.

    Among 405 universities in Japan that applied for campus vaccine rollout, 362 schools had started administering shots during or by the week starting Sept. 20, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. About 40 institutions withdrew their applications for reasons including that the timing of the vaccine supply was out of step with when they could prepare a system to manage the vaccinations.

    Even as student and faculty inoculations have progressed, some colleges have shown reservations about upping the ratio of non-online classes.

    At Kansai University in Osaka Prefecture, which earlier laid out a policy to make classes primarily face-to-face this academic year, about 60% of students have been through first doses via campus vaccinations alone, and the second round is progressing smoothly. However, in light of the surge in coronavirus cases in the prefecture, the school decided to hold classes entirely online for about half a month after the fall semester began on Sept. 21.

    At Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo, where roughly 70% of students have finished their second round of shots including at municipally run venues, the school administration will recommend giving more classes in person than during the spring semester. But Jiro Omi, head of the public relations section, said, "Some students have misgivings about attending face-to-face classes regardless of whether they've been vaccinated, and some live with elderly family members. It is premature to ask all students to come to campus."

    When areas subject to the state of emergency and quasi-emergency measures were expanded at the end of August, the education ministry sent notice to universities and other institutions advising that they utilize online classes appropriately if local governments ask them to.

    "We want universities to effectively combine online and non-online classes depending on the circumstances, instead of choosing either one of them," an education ministry official said, adding, "What is essential is for schools to carefully explain the situation to students so they can understand and are convinced."

    As there is no prospect of the pandemic being brought under control anytime soon, some students and faculty members are changing their views on the way classes are taught.

    "It's about time for us to change our thinking, from wondering 'when we can go back to normal' to realizing 'we can never go back to what it was like before.' Universities and faculty staff need to step up their efforts to boost the quality of online classes on the assumption that such lessons will remain an option for learning," a male professor at Hosei University commented.

    A student at Chiba University said the classes she took in the spring semester were mostly face-to-face or a combination of online and non-online classes. "Rather than asking for this and that from classes or professors, I think students can deepen their learning by devising ways to study," she said.

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

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