An education ministry panel has proposed strengthening the functions of schools during disasters after taking into consideration lessons of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The crux of the proposals, announced June 30, concerns the role of schools as evacuation centers.

Specifically, the panel proposes that schools have enough stocks of food and water to enable students and local residents to stay there for several days after disasters strike, be equipped with means of communication to be used when normal means of communication do not function and be installed with toilets that can be used even without water.

It also proposes that to cope with long stays of evacuees lasting for several weeks, schools have cooking facilities using gas, tatami mat rooms for elderly people and spaces where women can have privacy, for example while breast-feeding babies.

These proposals seem reasonable. But the central government must follow through with the proposals by taking necessary budgetary measures.

At a peak time after the March 11 disasters, 622 schools in 11 prefectures, including Tokyo, served as temporary shelters for evacuees — 310 of them in Miyagi Prefecture, 149 in Fukushima Prefecture, 75 in Ibaraki Prefecture and 64 in Iwate Prefecture.

As of early June, 132 schools were serving as temporary shelters — all in three Tohoku prefectures (76 in Miyagi, 37 in Iwate and 19 in Fukushima). As of June 30, about 24,000 people were still staying at temporary shelters, including schools.

The panel says that in areas prone to tsunami, schools should be built in higher elevations and that if this is difficult, high-rise schools should be built or evacuation routes should be improved.

A weak point in the proposals is that the panel has failed to pay due attention to the burden on teachers. If disasters hit, they will have to not only ensure that children are safe but also help evacuees staying at schools. If evacuees stay for a long time, teachers will have to teach children as well as assist evacuees.

The central government should dispatch personnel to schools serving as temporary shelters. It also should push efforts to make schools quake-proof in earnest.

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