National

Abe's proposal to shift the academic year to September faces increased opposition

by Tomohiro Osaki

STAFF WRITER

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has finalized a proposal urging the government to shelve the adoption of a new September school reopening plan that could add five more months to the school year, further dampening momentum for what was initially hailed as a solution to the pandemic-derailed academic calendar.

The proposal was submitted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, with the government reportedly expected to decide by the end of this month whether to move the start of the nation’s academic year from April to September.

The LDP’s official repudiation of the move is a further setback for Abe, who initially welcomed such a shift but has been forced to dial back his efforts over the past week, as he has faced fierce resistance both from the LDP and its ruling coalition partner, Komeito. In accepting a petition from Komeito that similarly opposes any immediate switch to a fall enrollment, Abe reportedly conceded Monday that “there is no need to hastily implement” the change, although it remains “one of the options” on the table.

The idea of moving the start of the academic year to September was embraced last month by several governors and student activists as a possible solution to the havoc wreaked on the school calendar by the pandemic.

The nationwide school closure request issued by Abe has caused severe disruption and left teachers hard-pressed to complete the designated curriculum in the usual time frame. Proponents argue that September enrollment this or next year can help schools offset the lost time by pushing back the end of the academic year, which currently runs through the end of March, until around August.

But this scenario was slammed as unrealistic by the LDP. Its proposal said a break with the century-old school calendar premised on April enrollment requires too much of a radical overhaul of the nation’s education system to be implemented anytime soon.

“It is difficult to introduce the September enrollment system in the immediate future, including this and next year,” the proposal said.

In an apparent compromise, however, the party said such an idea shouldn’t be scrapped altogether, as it has certain advantages such as fostering the globalization of universities. As such, the party suggested the fall start of an academic year should be treated as a measure the government should take its time to study under a special entity chaired by the prime minister.

Former education minister Masahiko Shibayama said Monday that the party’s discussions on the topic made it clear that any attempt to rush toward September enrollment is guaranteed to open a new set of problems that cannot be solved over the next few years.

Households, for starters, may be burdened with additional tuition costs if the end of this academic year is pushed back by several months.

“My parents can barely afford to send me to a college, but if several more months of tuition fees (for high school) are required, I might have to give up on higher education,” 17-year-old Nanaho, who has been actively campaigning against the change on Twitter, said. She declined to give her family name.

According to an estimate by the education ministry, households with children who attend elementary, junior high and high schools will be saddled with additional financial burdens totaling ¥2.5 trillion, including fees for tuition, school lunches and extracurricular activities, if five more months of schooling are required.

Postponing the start of a new academic year, even by several months, can also leave elementary schools overwhelmed with a surge in new pupils in the first year such a transition takes place, causing a shortage of teachers. More than 30 laws would have to be amended, according to the LDP.

Still, the LDP’s proposal is a blow to students and parents who have argued that pushing back enrollment next year to September is the healthiest way to help schools reclaim two or three months’ worth of classes they have so far lost due to closures.

In their rushed efforts to finish the curriculum by the end of March, many schools are now planning on curtailing summer vacations so they can hold classes despite the sweltering heat, and canceling various events such as sports days and cultural festivals.

“My school is going to have to sacrifice summer and winter vacations, and even Saturdays, to do classes and restore the time lost,” said a 17-year-old student in Hyogo Prefecture, who only gave her surname, Ando. “But few classrooms in my school have air conditioners. I’m worried about the risks of heatstroke,” she said.

Such concerns were echoed by a 43-year-old housewife in Shizuoka Prefecture, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Ishikawa.

To her, the suspected emergence of virus clusters at an elementary school in Kitakyushu, where a second wave of the coronavirus has now been reported, is a sobering reminder of how risky the hasty resumption of classes could be.

“It’s because schools are expected to finish everything by March that they’re reopening even at the risk of more infections,” said Ishikawa, a mother of two young teens. “I’m worried about the well-being of the kids and that their right to enjoy education in a safe environment is being ignored.”

Shibayama of the LDP said the party is mindful of these concerns.

The party’s proposal called for special measures that would enable the possible extension of this academic year roughly by two to four weeks so schools can secure additional time to finish the curriculum. Should a “second or third wave of the coronavirus” hit the nation — necessitating another bout of school closures — the extension could be expanded, it said.

“It is therefore possible that the next academic year would have to start in September after all as a result of more sweeping school closures,” Shibayama said. But such fall enrollment “should not be perpetuated, but treated as an exception.”

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