Stress from restricted activities may be key factor

It is worrying if more children feel that school is not enjoyable because they cannot interact freely with their friends as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time to think about how to restore normal school life.

A survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry found that a record-high 240,000 elementary and junior high school students were habitually absent from school in the last academic year. Absentee students have been gradually increasing annually, but the latest figure represents a 25% year-on-year jump. This can be described as an unusual situation.

The education ministry defines absentee students as those who are away from school for 30 days or more a year, excluding absences for such reasons as illness or to avoid infection with the novel coronavirus. Its analysis of the causes found that “apathy and anxiety” accounted for half of all cases.

The coronavirus spread rapidly during the last academic year, and schools strictly enforced an “eating-in-silence” policy in which students refrain from talking during lunch. Physical contact was restricted in PE classes and events were canceled. Many children may have been discouraged from going to school because of the reduced opportunities to interact with others.

Many schools and classes were temporarily closed across the country, and online classes have become widespread. Opportunities to go to school decreased and an atmosphere spread in which students did not have to force themselves to go to school when they were not feeling well. This, too, may have been partly responsible for the increase in the number of children who were frequently absent.

Wataru Sue, manager of Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School’s baseball club, which won the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium this summer, spoke about the pain felt by students who cannot interact with their peers. “Youth is a time of great closeness, but they have been told that all such things are off-limits,” Sue said.

As the manager noted, children normally grow up while closely interacting with others at school. Restrictions should be gradually eased at schools while continuing certain infection control measures.

In June, the Fukuoka City Board of Education relaxed its eating-in-silence policy, stating that students “may talk during lunch as long as they are not loud.” The board said the move was intended to put value on the time enjoyed by students while eating with their classmates.

An elementary school in the city of Tokushima created a dance that enables children to feel a sense of unity without touching each other, and it was performed at an athletic meet. It is hoped that each community will promote efforts to revive exchanges between children.

Apart from the impact of COVID-19, other factors such as insufficient sleep due to the excessive use of smartphones may be behind the sharp increase in the number of absentee children. The education ministry should study the factors behind this trend.

Prolonged absence from school could make it even more difficult for children to attend, as they may not be able to keep up with their classes or join their circle of friends.

Schools should strive to provide meticulous care such as counseling children who are not attending school, as well as their parents or guardians, before children fall into such a situation. Ways should be devised to make schools enjoyable for children within the parameters that are possible at this time.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 28, 2022)