Okayama – As the clock counts down towards the start of a new school semester, parents and guardians across the country face a uniquely unenviable choice: whether or not to send their children back to school as Japan grapples with COVID-19.
For those in big metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, the decision has been taken out of their hands. Most wards in Tokyo will postpone school opening until May, while some Osaka municipalities are slated to remain closed until April 19 or later.
In late February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked all schools across the country to close as the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread from China. The vast majority of elementary, junior high and high schools complied. Some reopened Monday, holding commencement ceremonies.
But many schools in prefectures and cities where there have been fewer cases reported so far have already reopened or plan to do so. Many parents are unsure how to respond.
Lynsey Mori and her husband decided not to send their three children back to school in the city of Kyoto when the new semester opened on Monday.
Since the outbreak of the virus earlier this year 125 people in Kyoto Prefecture have been confirmed as infected with COVID-19 as of Sunday, with a new cluster reported at Kyoto Sangyo University.
Mori says she and her husband were “shocked” when the decision to close schools was made back in February. “We thought it was an overreaction. But as time passed, we thought that maybe it was a good transitioning time for things to slow down.”
But the virus has “not gone away,” she said.
“I understand that we cannot let the economy crash, but closing schools is not going to solely do that. I’m astounded that they are opening and I for one will not be sending my children this week.”
Mariko Tashiro, a mother of two elementary-age children in Kyoto echoed Mori’s point: “To reopen the schools now when there are considerably more cases and higher risk does not make sense.
“As a parent of elementary school age kids I know it will be an impossible task to have hundreds of students follow the new rules and guidelines the schools set, and how can we expect them to when there are even adults who don’t?”
Like many parents of elementary-age children, Michael Blodgett has mixed feelings about schools reopening. His family live in Wazuka, a rural tea-growing town on the border of Kyoto and Nara.
“I know the school is taking some steps to ensure the kids and teachers are being safe, such as regularly washing hands and wearing masks,” Blodgett added. The education ministry has asked all schools to make sure measures are taken to avoid the “three Cs” — closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded conditions with many people and conversations in close proximity.
“But as we see what is happening around the world, it is hard to know if that is really safe enough,” Blodgett said. “Plus, we have a large elderly population here. And we really worry about them getting sick.”
Elizabeth O’Brien, a mother of two children in Sango, Nara Prefecture, said her son’s elementary school will go ahead with the entrance ceremony as planned for this week, “with precautions in place.
“We’re definitely nervous, but trying to live in wisdom and not panic,” O’Brien said.
For parents of children with medical conditions, it’s an especially worrying time. Julia Matsunaga is a mother of four children in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. Her youngest child was slated to start third grade this week, which was pushed back until May, but her doctor warned her to get a draft of the school’s safety plan regarding COVID-19 as her son has severe asthma.
“I’ve spoken to the elementary school many times in the last couple of weeks but every time they couldn’t confirm any safety plans because the city’s school board wasn’t confirming anything,” Matsunaga said.
“It’s a lot of stress and worrying,” Matsunaga said, highlighting the difficulties of considering what to do, working out how to implement homeschooling schedules if needed and holding down a job.
Other parents are calling on the government to take more measures that will make it easier for children to study from home.
“Measures need to be put in place so people with children are able to start preparing to have their children at home,” Sean Yamada, a father of two preschoolers said.
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