• Kahoku Shimpo

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More than a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic began to hit Sendai, where elementary and junior high schools were forced to close for a period of time last year.

They have since taken a variety of countermeasures against COVID-19 and started the new academic year mostly as scheduled.

A year into the pandemic, what is the new normal for students and teachers at local public schools?

Communication barriers

On April 22, 30 second graders from Dainohara Elementary School were taking a Japanese class in the school’s spacious library.

With their masks on, the students were sitting about 1 meter apart and were reading in silence. In front of them were transparent plastic boards acting as barriers to prevent infections.

The partitions, which were made by teachers and other staff members, were installed in the library last summer.

Takuya Kojima, the vice principal of the school, believes the new measures not only protect the students but also help them adjust better to the different social environment.

“The students can get the hang of how to practice social distancing,” he said.

The pandemic and the subsequent school closure from March to May last year distorted the learning environment and brought various challenges.

In 2021, however, even though a quasi-emergency declaration was in place earlier in the year, schools have remained open to provide pupils with better learning opportunities. At the same time, some challenges have had to be dealt with on a trial-and-error basis.

In one example, a junior high school in Taihaku Ward decided to focus on ukemi, or break fall techniques, during judo lessons to avoid close contact.

Another elementary school, in Izumi Ward, does not allow students to play the recorder in music classes, and instead students are taught how to play the instrument without actually blowing into it.

During English lessons, meanwhile, some schools have replaced teachers’ masks with transparent mouth shields to enable students to mimic their pronunciation.

However, studying in groups, with students sharing their opinions and collecting ideas together, remains a difficult task for all schools given that face-to-face discussion raises the risk of transmitting the virus.

To reduce that risk, students at Koyodai Junior High School in Izumi Ward are seated at a 45-degree angle to avoid facing each other while working in groups.

Haruaki Fukuda, the school’s principal, explains that the arrangement enables the students to debate and learn in groups, stressing the program’s necessity.

“Learning to exchange diverse opinions and deepen discussions is essential for students’ growth,” he said.

School events

Last year, a number of school events ended up being canceled due to the pandemic, but this year, many schools have been exploring the possibility of holding events if the situation allows.

An elementary school in Taihaku Ward pushed back its school trip to Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture, from its original date in June to October.

“Depending on the situation, we may need to reconsider, but given that the students are looking forward to the trip, we would like to let them go,” the school’s principal said.

Last year, an elementary school in Aoba Ward opened its physical education classes to the public by grade instead of canceling the school’s sports day. The event was so well received by parents that they decided to use the same arrangement this year as well.

However, some schools have faced unexpected challenges. A junior high school in Miyagino Ward planned to hold a choir contest among each grade, but was forced to change the venue to the school gymnasium after the planned location was selected by the local government to be a mass vaccination site.

But since the school’s gymnasium was too small, it was conducted without the presence of the students’ parents.

Silent meals

School lunchtimes may be the thing that has changed the most from the pre-pandemic days. Since students remove their masks, albeit for a short period of time, it is essential that safety measures are in place.

In many schools, a “silent meal” system, in which everyone eats facing the blackboard, has become the new normal. Some schools also serve food in the hallway, instead of inside the classroom, to avoid crowding.

In some cases, schools air old stories or music over their PA system. But in general, lunch breaks have become much quieter.

“School lunches used to be a time for students to communicate with each other,” said Satoshi Ouchi, vice principal of Itsutsubashi Junior High School in Aoba Ward. “It is an important opportunity that has been lost.”

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published May 3.

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