Schools in disaster zones regroup as students decline

Parts of the Tohoku area hit hardest by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami now have fewer school-age children, creating pressure to close or consolidate schools, school board data suggests.

The number of elementary and junior high school students in 42 of the hardest hit municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures totals about 187,000, down 12.2 percent from five years earlier, data gathered from local education boards said Saturday.

That is more than twice the 5.2 percent nationwide drop resulting from the declining birthrate.

The greater drop in the areas most damaged by the disasters is due mainly to families having moved away from coastal areas ravaged by tsunami. The 42 municipalities also include areas where people were ordered to evacuate from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster.

The decline has accelerated moves to eliminate and consolidate schools in those areas, casting a shadow over prospects for local communities, according to experts.

Bunkyo University professor Masaaki Hayo said schools can help cultivate a sense of unity. But he added, “Eliminating and consolidating schools could break up communities.”

Katsuya Suzuki of the education board in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, said, “It cannot be helped that people have settled where they have evacuated. As we also face lower birthrates, we need to think about new ways to operate schools.”