• Chunichi Shimbun

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Elementary and junior high schools’ sports days are changing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as teachers and students are struggling to hold the event while practicing social distancing and sanitizing.

In mid-September, the time when many schools hold athletic events, Takehara Elementary School in Gero, Gifu Prefecture, held a half-day sports day, instead of the usual full-day event.

Shortly before 8:30 a.m. on the day, students’ family members started coming into the school and submitted health check cards with their health conditions and body temperatures for the past five days written down.

The school handed out two stickers each to the students’ families beforehand to let only those wearing them on their clothing enter the school grounds and watch the event.

To avoid close contact among students, the school abolished a big ball rolling race that requires students to touch the ball with their hands, and instead introduced a race in which a pair carry a big ball with two sticks.

Instead of showing support by cheering and shouting, students used flags and clappers.

Hand sanitizers were placed at various places and children were told to stand about 2 meters away from each other, or spread their arms sideways, to practice social distancing while they waited for their turn.

“We all thought of ways to avoid close contact and created a new sports day together,” said sixth grader Yuina Nakashima, 11, who headed the organizing committee.

Takayuki Imai, 43, head of the school’s PTA, who saw his sixth grade son participate in a relay race, said, “Parents also would have felt sad if the sports day was not held. I wanted the school to organize it even if it would be different from usual ones.”

In the city of Shizuoka, Shimizuojima Junior High School held its sports day on a weekday in mid-September during school hours without inviting family members or local residents.

Students made 1.5-meter-long batons to allow them to hold a relay race and made runners sanitize the baton after receiving it.

Instead of holding its usual ball tossing game in which students throw balls into a basket on a high pole all at once, the school introduced a ball catching game in which a student holds a 3.5-meter-long bamboo pole with a basket attached to the end and catches balls thrown by other students one at a time.

Miku Mochizuki, 14, a third grader and head of the school’s student council, said, “We created a new game from scratch, so we were worried about whether everyone would enjoy it, but people were excited.”

“We came up with games that could make all the students become aware of the need for social distancing and sanitizing,” said Aya Horiike, 14, a third grader and deputy head of the student council.

Daisuke Fujikawa, 55, a professor of Chiba University and principal of an affiliated junior high school, stresses that sports day “is an important opportunity to nurture the ability to communicate, solve problems and work together.”

Two students from Shimizuojima Junior High School in the city of Shizuoka pass a long baton between them in a relay race during sports day in September. | SHIMIZUOJIMA JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL / VIA CHUNICHI SHIMBUN
Two students from Shimizuojima Junior High School in the city of Shizuoka pass a long baton between them in a relay race during sports day in September. | SHIMIZUOJIMA JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL / VIA CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

“Although we can’t hold programs that involve close contact and we can’t invite a large audience in order to avoid infections, sports day can make students achieve a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem and encourage them to get motivated to study,” Fujikawa said.

Municipalities in the Chubu region have different policies regarding sports day, with some canceling it and others holding it on a smaller scale or in other forms.

The city of Gifu decided in May to cancel sports day at all of its municipal-run schools.

“Students can come into close contact with each other not only on the day of the event but also during preparation. We have to prioritize children’s safety,” said an official of the city’s board of education.

The schools instead organized sports-related events including sporting competitions for each grade or dance performances.

In the case of Nagoya, nearly 20% of the municipal-run elementary and junior high schools had canceled sports day as of July, according to the city’s board of education. The rest of the schools plan to hold it by February. One school is considering holding it over several days during school hours and inviting parents to watch.

Schools in the city of Tsu, Mie Prefecture, plan to hold sports day while implementing measures to prevent infections. Some schools will hold it over several days according to different grades and abolish programs that require close contact.

In the city of Fukui, schools held sports day in September or are doing so in October while taking such measures as organizing programs at different times for each grade or shortening the program to a half-day event.

A school in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, asked family members to stay on the school grounds only while their children are participating.

In the city of Nagano, where nearly 80% of elementary schools held sports day in late May last year, most elementary and junior high schools postponed the event to autumn since the schools were closed in May to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Some are holding it on weekdays during school hours and others are organizing it as a half-day event on weekends.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Oct. 15.

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