• Chunichi Shimbun

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It’s the first swimming class of the year in early June, and a teacher is calling on third grade students at an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture to splash themselves with water — a scene that hadn’t occurred in two years.

The children at Makuwa Elementary School in Motosu smiled as they vigorously splashed water on their chests. But absent during the lesson were the cheerful voices usually heard at the pool, as they were told to remain silent as part of anti-virus measures.

“I’m sad that we are not allowed to speak, but I’m glad we can get in the pool,” said Riisa Azuma, one of the students.

Last year, most schools were closed in the spring due to the nationwide spread of infections, and swimming classes were canceled as well.

This year, some schools in the Chubu region have resumed the classes, taking measures to prevent infection such as handing out waterproof masks and reducing the number of students in the pool.

In Motosu, all of the four junior high schools and eight elementary schools are holding swimming classes this year.

“Not having (swimming) classes for two years has a big impact,” said an official at the city’s board of education. “It is important (for students) to learn how to swim so that they can protect their own lives.”

Since some children and parents are worried about getting infected, the board of education handed out a total of 1,840 waterproof masks for all the elementary school children and teachers involved in the classes.

They wear the mask when they warm up and take a shower before going into the pool. They take them off inside the pool, but they are not allowed to talk.

The school also prohibited students from using some of the shelves in the locker room to prevent crowding. The swimming lessons are held for each class, rather than the two to three classes at a time that was standard before the pandemic.

About 30 students out of some 530 pupils at Makuwa Elementary School, who do not attend the lessons because of their parents’ concerns, watch swimming instruction videos in the school library instead.

“We were worried at first, but we are very relieved to see that children are following the rules and refraining from speaking in the locker room and the pool,” said Kazuo Shiraki, the school’s principal.

Other municipalities, including Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture and Yokkaichi and Owase in Mie Prefecture, are also holding swimming classes at elementary and junior high schools.

Showa Elementary School in Tajimi gives two disposable masks to each pupil taking the class to use when changing clothes and taking a shower.

“Offering swimming classes and preventing infections are both important. We have to come up with ways to balance the two,” said an official from the city’s board of education.

The Sports Agency says it hopes schools will hold swimming classes as much as possible while taking measures such as refraining from unnecessary talking or shouting and keeping a distance of at least two meters.

However, some municipalities including Nagoya canceled the classes this year as well, and even in municipalities that decided to hold the lessons, some schools are not following the decision because of the difficulty of maintaining social distance given the number of students and the amount of space in the locker room or around the pool.

Atsunori Matsui, a professor at Naruto University of Education specializing in swimming education, says it is necessary to think about the risk of not having swimming classes in addition to the risk of infections.

Swimming lessons “are an opportunity for children to learn how to protect their lives in the water,” Matsui said.

If the classes are not held for two years in a row, students will not have the chance to have lessons in a pool for as long as three years.

“Children grow every year and their bodies change,” Matsui said. “Even if they could move (in a certain way under water) previously, it doesn’t mean they can still do it this year.”

New course of study guidelines introduced in elementary schools in full scale last year include lessons for students in higher grades on survival swimming skills, such as back floating or repeating the movement of submerging and coming up above the water to breathe while waiting for rescue.

“Even for those who can’t swim, the lessons will give them the opportunity to be aware of their inability to swim and the risks of going to dangerous places,” Matsui says.

But he also notes that swimming classes are not only about going in the pool.

“They can learn the basics of swimming and practice swimming movements in a classroom,” he said. “It is also possible to offer cross-curriculum learning sessions, such as studying the culture of regions closely linked to the water.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 24.

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