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Decisions over school closures, online classes vary among municipalities across Japan

A class is held both online and offline at Mito Municipal Horihara Elementary School on Feb. 7, 2022. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

TOKYO -- Amid the sudden spread of the coronavirus's omicron variant, schools across Japan have diverged in their responses, with some municipalities deciding to temporarily close schools and shift to online classes.

    There have been many cases of schools temporarily closing certain classes or the entire institution. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology says it does not intend to issue a nationwide request for school closures, but some municipalities have decided to have schools close and shift to online lessons. Decisions regarding school closures have been divided among municipalities which aim to balance both the continuance of education and prevention of infections, while considering the burden on families.

    According to education ministry statistics, as of Jan. 26, one of six public schools, including kindergartens, elementary, junior high and senior high schools, had temporarily shut their doors or closed certain classes or grades. The Cabinet Secretariat reported that 32% of infection clusters which were confirmed during the sixth coronavirus wave from the beginning of 2022 occurred at schools and other educational facilities. There have reportedly been growing concerns of children contracting the virus at school and bringing it home, leading to a further spread of infections.

    If schools are closed, the burden on families increases as they have to look after their children during the day. The education ministry has asked schools to combine in-person classes with online lessons, as well as to have students come to school at different times, and make careful decisions regarding school closures. However, the decision is ultimately left up to local education boards and other parties.

    The Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education issued a request to the education boards of each municipality to have elementary schools conduct online classes and stagger school hours from Jan. 31. However, as infections among students saw no decline, the prefectural education board strengthened countermeasures on Feb. 8 and limited classes to online lessons.

    The Ibaraki Prefecture city of Mito closed all 33 of its elementary schools and other institutions, and shifted to online classes. On Feb. 7, the city's Horihara Elementary School held classes where around 220 students -- over 80% of the student body -- participated from home using a tablet computer distributed by the school. Thirty-four students who could not join classes remotely due to issues at home and other reasons showed up at the school.

    "I used photos to make the content easy to see even on a screen," said Sanae Hagiya, 47, a homeroom teacher in charge of second-graders. She held classes in front of a webcam, while eight students attended in person. She commented, "It's difficult to fully grasp the children's state in remote classes. Tasks like switching mics on and off when students read aloud passages in Japanese lessons is hard and takes double the normal time." She also noted that paying attention to both students attending classes online and offline required great care.

    A male student who participated online said, "I'm sad that we can't do physical education, which is my favorite class." A female student who came to school said, "During class, there are times when my friends on the screen stop reacting, and I get worried."

    Some guardians have also expressed a desire to have children go to school as they cannot stay at home with them due to work. Vice principal Kuniaki Ouchi commented, "We accept children who have no choice but to come to school. As the state of infections is unpredictable, we have to create multiple class plans that are capable of being held both offline and online."

    The city of Tsukuba, also in Ibaraki Prefecture, held online classes in principle without having students show up to school. Officials said that there were no major issues during the school closure in September last year, and that online classes have the advantage of allowing all students to proceed with learning at the same pace, compared to staggered school hours which are accompanied by complex groupings of students.

    Meanwhile, the Fukushima Prefecture town of Inawashiro decided to close all of its elementary and junior high schools. An infection cluster occurred at an elementary school and a sudden rise in cases was also recorded for the entire town. As a result, facilities including day care centers were closed from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2 to prevent infections from spreading further among households. Junior high schools held online lessons, while elementary schools mainly had students work on homework.

    The Ishikawa Prefecture city of Komatsu took the measure of suspending classes for one week from Feb. 1, for only third-year junior high students, ahead of private high school entrance exams in the prefecture. During this period, teachers responded to students' questions online. An official of the municipal education board commented, "It's not that there was an especially large number of infections among middle schoolers, but we wanted to remove worries of infection and have them focus on their studies."

    On the other hand, in Tokyo, which has recorded over 10,000 new daily coronavirus cases for over two weeks, only 0.7% of public schools have closed their doors, according to a study by the education ministry. As of Feb. 7, 25 of a total of 191 metropolitan high schools and secondary schools were conducting all classes online. A metropolitan education board official said, "We'd like to keep school closures at a minimum. We will carry on learning while preventing infections."

    The Japanese government has been pushing forward its "GIGA School Program," which supplies one device such as a tablet computer per student at elementary and junior high schools. According to the education ministry, as of the end of January, 95.2% of public elementary and junior high schools, and other institutions, had completed preparations to have the devices used in home learning during school closures. However, there are differences among prefectures, with Iwate Prefecture having the lowest percentage of public schools (78.3%) that have completed preparations.

    Nihon University professor Kaori Suetomi commented on the differences in decisions regarding school closures, saying, "There are municipalities that cannot effectively utilize online learning, and this may lead to educational inequality between regions. However, schools have two years of experience under the coronavirus pandemic. I'd like them to figure out ways to stay connected with children."

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda and Hiroshi Endo, Tokyo City News Department)

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