This is the first in a two-part series on how the nation’s schools continued with in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The upbeat theme song of popular anime series “Lupin the Third” reverberated throughout the building of a Tokyo elementary school on a recent balmy afternoon. The music came from a courtyard where a bevy of sixth graders had taken center stage and were playing accordions, metallophones and keyboards — instruments that don’t generate droplets — under the mesmerized gaze of an audience of hundreds of schoolchildren.
The performance by the final-year students at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward took place under the state of emergency in early March — just weeks before their graduation — as a way for them to say thank you to the younger pupils and teachers they would leave behind.
It’s an annual tradition that always touches the hearts of teachers about to send off students, but this year the concert took on an even greater emotional significance: In an academic year that saw the COVID-19 pandemic wipe out a sports festival and other major school events, it was the first all-school gathering that teachers at Funabori Elementary had managed to pull off, albeit with a plethora of restrictions.
“We usually hold this performance in our gymnasium, but we can’t do that anymore because no all-school gathering is allowed in one place under the board of education’s guidelines,” principal Mio Sato said.
In order to hold the event, teachers had to think outside the box: They turned the school’s courtyard into an improvised outdoor music hall, allowing the audience to spread out across each floor of the four-story building to listen to the sixth graders below through half-open windows, bypassing the rule against mass gatherings.
The recent scene at Funabori Elementary offered a glimpse of how Japanese schools — which, unlike in many parts of the world, have remained open during much of the pandemic — are experimenting with various ways to co-exist with the coronavirus while keeping children safe.
In issuing guidelines to elementary and middle schools under its jurisdiction, Edogawa Ward largely hewed to instructions set forth by the education ministry. Those include, among other things, suspending or scaling down high-risk activities prone to spreading infections by droplets. It has, for example, also advised that physical education be conducted in a way that avoids physical contact among students.
Physical distancing, mask-wearing and rigorous hand-washing practices are among the measures touted as essential in what the ministry calls a “new normal” for schools.
Funabori Elementary — one of the largest public elementary schools in the ward with 760 students — is no exception.
A typical day now starts with the staggered arrival of children, which is designed to disperse crowds as much as possible.
The number of students ebbs and flows as they arrive at the school gates every morning, all sporting masks of various colors and patterns. Once inside the building, they take off their shoes and switch to indoor slippers, a common practice in Japan that Sato said “makes entryways the space most packed with kids in our school.” To disperse crowds, blue tarps are now spread out near the entrance to expand the shoe-changing area, Sato explained.
Wearing masks has become a fixture of life at Funabori Elementary, where on a recent visit children kept them on most of the time, even during a PE class that involved second graders doing a hefty amount of running and practicing gymnastics using vaulting boxes.
The principle of physical distancing is taken seriously, too. The concept has been instilled in the pupils so strongly that during the PE class they occasionally spread their arms apart while lining up for the vaulting boxes in a bid to keep a safe distance from one another.
Desks in classrooms are now spaced out as much as possible to maintain a distance of at least 1 meter, as recommended by the education ministry.
For many schools, however, that’s a high bar to strive for given the average class size for primary education institutions is 27.2 pupils, making Japanese classrooms one of the most crowded among developed countries, according to a 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The statistics showed the average class size among OECD countries was 21.1.
In the case of Funabori Elementary, where classrooms have a floor size of about 58 square meters, nearly 40 sixth graders were studying in each classroom in the academic year that ended March 31.
“Kids in the upper grades are big, so their classrooms feel a bit packed,” said teacher Sachika Sato, who taught a classroom of 33 fifth graders over the past year.
Elsewhere, a classroom of second graders taught by Benika Iguchi had its windows open for better ventilation, a key anti-infection measure that continued even through the scorching summer and cold winter.
For the most part, Iguchi says children under her care — age 7 or 8 — seem to be adapting well to the new reality at their school.
“They are still little, so they mostly do whatever they’re told to do, but sometimes they just become careless and start hugging or touching each other. It’s at moments like this that I need to tell them to stop — I feel sorry for them, though,” Iguchi said.
Among subjects flagged as high-risk by the education ministry is music.
As is the case at many schools, Funabori Elementary no longer lets children sing aloud during music classes.
Instead, they are instructed to clap their hands or stomp to the music as a way to hone their sense of rhythm, or focus more on playing instruments. But any wind instruments that generate droplets, such as recorders and melodicas, are no longer played.
Lunchtime isn’t the same as before, either. For schoolchildren, the 45-minute recess has always been an essential part of socialization: When lunchtime arrives, they typically rearrange their desks to sit in circles and chat with each other while eating.
But with the pandemic, a new policy of mokushoku (silent eating) now reigns, with children all facing in the same direction as they concentrate on consuming lunch, without uttering a word. Playing sports in the schoolyard has become a less common way to spend time between classes, with many students now instructed to spend time indoors, some choosing to read books in silence.
Adjusting to a new normal has taken a toll not only on children but on teachers, who have been saddled with a heavier workload than before. Like many of their peers nationwide, teachers at Funabori Elementary are tasked with disinfecting common touch points such as door knobs and electric switches on a daily basis.
Another major headache is daily temperature checks. Every morning, teachers need to sift through a stack of paper submitted by pupils that keeps a record of their temperature taken that day.
Although children are supposed to have their temperature taken before leaving for school, some forget to do so, forcing teachers to stop them for an on-the-spot measurement.
But perhaps the biggest burden for teachers lies in the fundamental change to the way they conduct their classes.
Iguchi, the second grade teacher, said the virus has upended the way she and her colleagues run their lessons, with any group activity among children now strictly discouraged to minimize the risk of droplets flying about.
“Whereas they used to be encouraged to engage in group discussions and sit face-to-face with each other to work on collaborative projects, they can’t do that anymore,” Iguchi said.
Iguchi’s view was echoed by Sachika Sato, the fifth grade teacher.
The hardest part for Sato is that with children now dissuaded from working in groups, the practice of self-help is disintegrating — with the result being that she can no longer expect pupils to solve problems among themselves. Instead, she has to guide, supervise and give feedback to all of them individually, and this translates into a substantial increase in her workload, she said.
“It’s really been exhausting,” Sato said as she looked back on the past year.
“Before the pandemic, kids could be counted on to look after each other, so I would sometimes ask them to tackle an assignment together and submit their work as a team,” Sato said. “But now, everyone is on their own, so it’s becoming more like me versus 33 kids.”
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