The education ministry has presented the option of schools reopening for some grades only amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with priority given to classes for first- and sixth-graders at elementary schools as well as third-year students at junior high schools.

The proposal was made to local education boards on Friday. Most school across the country have been closed since early March amid the outbreak.

Elementary school first- and sixth-graders as well as third-year students at junior high schools will be prioritized because they have either just entered school in April, are in their final year or must prepare for high school entrance exams next year. The ministry recommended that the same considerations be made for third-year students in high school who would be facing university entrance exams or looking for jobs.

The suggestion follows a meeting between the education ministry and a government panel of experts on Monday.

The ministry also proposed holding classes in smaller groups using several classrooms, providing boxed school lunches rather than having students serve food to each other and avoiding group sports.

While the nationwide state of emergency over the pandemic, originally scheduled to end next Wednesday, is expected to be extended for another month, education minister Koichi Hagiuda said not all schools need to remain closed since the situation varies from region to region.

“If all schools follow the measures of the hardest-hit municipalities, classes will increasingly fall behind schedule,” Hagiuda said, urging local authorities to reopen schools if possible based on their own judgment.

Noting that some municipalities have already decided to extend school closures to the end of May, Hagiuda called it “a stretch” for them to make up for lost time and complete the academic year scheduled to end next March.

In a related development, the Prime Minister’s Office has instructed relevant ministries to hash out issues concerning the option of changing the start of the academic year to September, government sources said Friday.

The government hopes to sort out key issues as early as June before starting to discuss whether to introduce the new system from next year.

The move comes amid concerns that prolonged school closures due to the pandemic will result in students falling behind, or starting school at different times.

By matching the academic year to what is common in other parts of the world, including Europe, the United States and China, the government also hopes to attract more foreign students, while making it easier for Japanese students to study abroad.

The University of Tokyo had begun to consider implementing a September academic year nine years ago, but subsequently abandoned the idea.

Hagiuda said Japan has so far seen no child deaths from COVID-19 and child-to-child infections at schools have not been reported. But he added that if a cluster of students infected with the virus is found, it will prevent schools nationwide from resuming.

As of April 22, about 95 percent of schools in Japan were closed, according to a survey by the ministry.

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