With the beginning of the new semester, schools in Japan are heading into uncharted waters as they battle a delta-driven explosion in COVID-19 cases, prompting some parents to decide not to send their children back to the classroom.

In some municipalities, elementary, middle and high schools resumed classes last week after a monthlong summer vacation. But for many students, Wednesday marked the first day back at school.

The school restart has coincided with a recent surge in the number of teens and preteens infected with the coronavirus, igniting controversy over whether it’s safe to allow pupils back into schools.

Health ministry data shows that the weekly total of those age 19 and younger who tested positive for COVID-19 had hit 30,427 nationwide as of Thursday, a nearly sixfold jump from the 5,535 about a month ago when the summer break had just begun.

This has led some concerned parents to take the rare step of having their children stay at home despite the start of the school year.

In the city of Miyazaki, for example, 1,098 elementary and middle school children — or 3.4% of the total — didn’t show up for in-person classes on Aug. 24, the first day of the new semester in the city, because their parents voiced concerns about the virus.

That figure was the highest since the city started irregularly probing the number of absentee cases related to COVID-19 fears around May of last year, said Hiroki Makino, an official from the city’s board of education.

One of the most common reasons cited by those parents is that they are simply worried about their child catching the virus at school and bringing it home — particularly if there are any family members with pre-existing health conditions.

Other parents, according to Makino, said they want to take extra precautions because they are aware of people close to them who tested positive, such as colleagues.

Students at Midori Elementary School in the city of Osaka on Aug. 25 | KYODO
Students at Midori Elementary School in the city of Osaka on Aug. 25 | KYODO

It is not just parents but also schools that are taking action. A Kyodo News poll on Saturday found that 22 out of the 52 major cities across the nation, or about 40%, said their boards of education will implement measures such as shorter school hours and staggered arrival times for pupils as they resume in-person learning.

The recent spread of the virus has prompted the education ministry to put together guidelines that spell out the circumstances under which schools in regions subject to a state of emergency and other strengthened anti-virus measures should consider shutting down classes.

According to the guidelines, if two or more students are confirmed to be infected, then the whole class should be suspended for five to seven days. The guidelines go on to clarify that even if there is only one child who has tested positive, suspension is still encouraged if there are multiple close contacts or multiple students in the same class who exhibit flu-like symptoms.

If there are other classes like this in the same grade, students in that particular grade should all stay at home, according to the guidelines. If the suspensions expand across different grades, then the entire school needs to shut down.

The new guidelines also put forth criteria for identifying close contacts, giving teachers a clearer idea of how pupils should be classified in the event of an infection.

Examples cited included students who live in the same dormitory room as those infected, and students who have a history of conversing with them unmasked within a distance of 1 meter.

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