National

Schools reopen, but student numbers fail to rebound in disaster-hit Fukushima municipalities

JIJI

Eight years after the March 2011 disasters, elementary and junior high schools have reopened in 10 Fukushima Prefecture municipalities after the lifting of nuclear evacuation advisories. Student numbers have not rebounded.

According to statistics released last May, the number of students stood at only about 10 percent of the level before 3/11.

During the protracted evacuations, many families rebuilt their lives in new locations, leading to the sharp fall in students in Fukushima. As a result, local governments are facing difficulties keeping schools operating.

In the Yamakiya district in the town of Kawamata, the evacuation advisory was lifted in March 2017, six years after the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Elementary and junior high schools reopened in the town in April 2018, but five students in the sixth grade are the only elementary school children. With no newcomers joining this spring, the elementary school plans to suspend operations in April.

About 40 percent of the residents have returned to the district, but three-quarters of them are aged 60 or older.

“Child-rearing families have shifted their living bases to the locations where they took shelter, after their children made friends at school and they built new homes,” an official of the town’s board of education said.

A man in his 60s who is a member of a neighborhood community association in the district is disappointed by the steep decrease in the number of children.

“The disappearance of children’s voices is like the lights going out,” the man, who did not want his name published, said.

Before the March 2011 disasters, Sanbiki Shishimai, a traditional local event in which elementary school children perform dances for the health of local people, was held every year. The event resumed in 2017, but the organizers plan to enlist the help of children from outside the district this year.

Although the event is not in the original form, “we want to continue our tradition one way or another,” the man said.

In the village of Iitate, the number of elementary and junior high school students has fallen to 79. The local government currently pays all education-related expenses, including for education materials and school lunches.

The village operates 12 school buses, including some for students commuting from neighboring municipalities, at an annual cost of about ¥65 million.

Schools in the village devote a lot of time to education aimed at nurturing children’s affection for their hometown.

“If they grow up in this village, they will hopefully make some form of contributions (to the village) in the future,” an official of the village board of education said.

The central government is working to improve small-class education in depopulated areas through the use of information and communications technology.

In February, four elementary schools in the Fukushima village of Katsurao and the towns of Tomioka and Namie conducted a joint ethics class by linking up in a teleconference system. Via screens, students exchanged opinions on the theme of having a big heart.

“It gives valuable experience to students, as they usually have few opportunities to hear a range of views,” said Dai Nagaki, a 31-year-old teacher at a school in Katsurao.

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