Kansai kids return to school as flu threat fades

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — It was back-to-school day Monday for the majority of students at 4,400 schools in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures after being kept home for a week by the outbreak of swine flu.

As of Monday afternoon, 346 people, mostly junior high and high school students in the Kansai region, were confirmed to have contracted the virus.

Local schools, which announced early last week they would close until Monday or Tuesday, reopened with a sense of relief as the health ministry announced the number of new infections peaked last week and local governments reported many people who fell ill had recovered by the weekend.

However, a few schools in both Hyogo and Osaka, where large numbers of students were stricken or where students became sick after their schools closed, will remain shut for another few days, pending the discovery of new cases among their students.

For most, though, it was time to put on the school uniforms again. Some who headed back to class Monday, predictably, were hoping for more time off.

“It was great. I had a relaxing week, getting caught up with friends and just hanging around the house. I didn’t study too much,” said Yuko Nakanishi, 17, a high school student in Osaka.

Parents of younger students were especially happy to see the schools reopen.

“It was a tough week,” said Masanori Kawahara, a 31-year-old office worker whose daughter goes to an Osaka-area school.

“My daughter, a third-grader, was home, but my wife had to go to her part-time job and leave her with friends. I hope she can get caught up quickly, although I suspect there will have to be makeup classes.”

Last Friday, at the urging of the governors of Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, the health ministry agreed to allow local municipalities to decide for themselves whether to open or close schools as evidence mounted that the outbreak was due to what is likely a less virulent strain of the H1N1 virus than the one that has killed 86 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

On Monday, the ministry said newly confirmed cases of the virus peaked May 20 and have been decreasing since.