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With many students in Japan set to return to classrooms this week after the summer break, parents and teachers are worried that COVID-19 infections may spread quickly among them at school and they will then bring the virus back home.

During the summer break, which normally runs from late July to late August, there has been a surge in clusters of infections among children during club activities and at cram schools. In Tokyo, for example, 14.3% of new cases between Aug. 10 and Aug. 16 were among those age 19 or younger, up from 8.2% between March 23 and March 29, which is typically during the spring holiday.

An education ministry survey showed a total of 2,817 children up to and including those of high school age contracted COVID-19 in July, down from a peak of 6,721 cases in January. But the ministry warned that number was set to balloon due to a sharp increase in new infections driven by the highly contagious delta variant, which is now estimated to account for more than 90% of all cases in Japan.

For now, the Suga administration has come up with voluntary COVID-19 countermeasures, including asking students to stay at home if they have signs of flu and to maintain 2 meters of space between seats as much as possible in areas with the highest infection risks.

The education ministry is reluctant to issue a blanket nationwide school closure, similar to the measures it took last year at the beginning of the pandemic. Schools play an important role in guaranteeing learning opportunities and developing academic ability, as well as providing a safe space for children to ensure their well-being, education minister Koichi Hagiuda said Friday.

“We need to sharply raise the level of vigilance with regards to the infection control measures at schools,” he told reporters. “Taking into consideration the need to guarantee learning for children and the impact on their mind and body, blanket local closures should be considered carefully.”

But a growing number of municipal governments, which have the authority to request school shutdowns in their jurisdiction, are extending summer vacations. For example, Kawasaki and Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture have extended the summer vacation at city-run elementary and junior high schools until the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Friday called for measures such as shortened classroom hours or having a limited number of students come to school on a rotational basis, with the remainder learning remotely online.

Some in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called for extended summer vacations or temporary closures of schools for about a month.

A classroom at Shiratori Elementary School in Tokyo in June | REUTERS
A classroom at Shiratori Elementary School in Tokyo in June | REUTERS

The education ministry sent out notices Friday to local governments nationwide saying that temporary closures of elementary and junior high schools should be avoided considering that infections at home have accounted for the majority of new cases. High schools should consider staggered commuting hours or adopting hybrid learning by having a limited number of students come to school in shifts, it said.

Schools were also asked to consult with doctors and public health centers before issuing notices of any temporary closure of a whole school or a partial closure of some classes.

In case local governments decide on temporary school closures, schools are also encouraged to use technology to make remote learning possible.

The ministry’s notice also asked children in areas at levels 2 and 3 on the three-point infection risk scale to refrain from going to school if their family members have flu-like symptoms.

To avoid new infections, schools in level 3 areas were also instructed not to engage in particularly high-risk classroom activities, such as group work done in close proximity or loud singing in a group.

Hagiuda said that the ministry would distribute antigen kits to elementary and junior high schools in addition to high schools, so that students and teachers can get tested if they feel sick while at school and cannot immediately see a doctor.

The education minister also asked local governments to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers as soon as possible — Japan has currently approved vaccinations for those age 12 and older. Meanwhile, he also asked parents and schools to pay particular attention to children, as suicide tends to increase after the summer break is over.

Children can consult their families, teachers, school counselors or friends, or contact a 24-hour children hotline if they find it difficult to talk to those people, he said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit International Suicide Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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