Education officials across the country are scrambling to decide whether to reopen schools in their districts following recommendations from a top government panel on the novel coronavirus Wednesday night.
The panel composed of infectious disease experts said that extending school closures in areas particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, such as Tokyo and Osaka Prefecture, could be an option. More than 95 new cases were reported in Tokyo on Thursday, the sharpest rise in one day.
It did not explicitly weigh in on the prospect of reopening schools in areas with a moderate number of COVID-19 patients or places where no cases have been reported.
The panel’s verdict poses a difficult task for prefectural governments and municipalities: They must assess school reopenings on a case-by-case basis while taking into account the number of coronavirus cases in the local area. This differs from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unilateral blanket request to shutter schools nationwide in late February to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
On Thursday, Chiba Prefecture decided to reopen its prefectural schools starting Monday in the vast majority of school districts. Some schools located nearby a care facility in the town of Tonosho, where a mass infection was reported, will remain closed for another week.
At the same time, neighboring Tokyo has opted for a drastically different approach. The metropolitan government has decided to keep schools it runs closed until May 6 and has asked wards and cities in the metropolis to follow suit. Tokyo has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country with more than 680.
Similarly, Kumamoto Mayor Kazufumi Onishi tweeted that he has asked the city’s board of education to extend school closures until the end of Golden Week in early May.
Meanwhile, the Fukuoka City Board of Education announced it will continue canceling classes at all municipal elementary, junior high, high and special education schools until April 17. The decision reflects concerns shared by the board of education officials over a rising number of the infected in the city.
In Hokkaido, where Gov. Naomichi Suzuki had declared a state of emergency, school officials are reportedly going to reopen schools as long as there is no surge in COVID-19 patients.
Aichi Prefecture education officials have instructed prefectural high schools in Nagoya to push back their opening time by an hour to stagger commuting hours.
The recommendations by the government panel of experts on Wednesday night came after Abe asked it to assess whether it would be appropriate to reopen schools nationwide at the beginning of the school year, which begins this month. Concerns have been growing that reopening schools amid the surging number of COVID-19 infections could contribute to new case clusters.
“As for schools, based on our view at this point, children play a limited role in spreading (the coronavirus) in communities,” unlike influenza, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, vice chairman of the expert panel, during a news conference. “Regarding schools, it’s important to make decisions based on how rampant the coronavirus is in a community or neighborhood.”
In the areas hard-hit by the virus, Omi also recommended that people refrain from gatherings of 10 or more, as well as dining with many individuals outside of one’s family. Requests to stay indoors within a specified period should also be made in those areas, he added.
The education ministry released guidelines for schools last week calling on teachers to take preventative measures such as opening windows to improve classroom ventilation. The ministry also said it plans to make the guidelines clearer following the recommendations by the expert panel.
Education minister Koichi Hagiuda had told reporters Tuesday that the ministry would maintain its stance on lifting a nationwide school closure at the start of the school year. At the same time, Hagiuda stressed that each municipality should make its own decision to open up schools based on the number of COVID-19 patients reported in the area.
Abe in late February requested all elementary, junior high, high and special education schools nationwide to be shut down through spring break, which typically ends in early April. Some education officials and parents criticized the abruptness of the move.
The panel had said at the time that although children are at a low risk of developing severe cases of the virus, those with either light symptoms or who are asymptomatic could infect their families.