• Kyodo

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Almost all prefectures across the nation began shutting schools Monday in a bid to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, four days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a shock request for a total school closure until early April.

As confusion spread among many local authorities, some schools held final classes of the year or left facilities open for children unable to stay home alone while their parents work.

Shimane Prefecture, among those that have seen no reported cases of the virus so far, is the only such authority to have said it would not close any of its schools.

“I am thankful that the school is open. But I’m also worried that the school could become a source of infection,” said a 35-year-old woman who drove her two children to an elementary school in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, on Monday morning.

The city of Saitama closed all its elementary schools Monday but said they would be open for children who were unable to stay at home alone.

At Tokiwa Elementary School in Saitama, which has 945 students enrolled, 72 came to the school and spent the day on workbooks, arts and crafts. “I want to see my classmates,” said a first grader.

In Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, an elementary school was set to be closed from in the afternoon but held final classes in the morning.

Some schools will close from Tuesday or later. In the city of Kyoto, Suzaku No. 4 Elementary School will close from Thursday. “We will make preparations in the next three days and offer guidance to students in how to spend time on studies and in their daily lives while school is out,” said Principal Tomohiro Hirano.

Abe announced the school closure plan last Thursday, calling for facilities to remain shut until the end of the spring break, in early April, when the new school year is set to begin. The education ministry subsequently issued the request to local boards of education.

“We cannot, under any circumstances, allow group infections among children to occur in school,” the prime minister said at a news conference Saturday after his request triggered confusion among teachers and parents.

He said parents who needed to take time off to look after their children until the new academic year begins would receive financial support.

The health ministry said Monday it planned to ask after-school facilities to stay open and use open classrooms amid the country-wide closures, while suggesting that teachers from closed schools may be able to assist with their operation.

“There is a possibility that (after-school facilities) could become overpopulated if the number of children sent there increases,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato told journalists Sunday. “We would like to use the schools and ask teachers for their cooperation.”

The government is set to bear the costs associated with the additional time some children will spend in the facilities, rather than asking parents to cover the extra. Criteria for employment subsidies have also been eased to include nonregular employees.

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