Schools struggle to secure learning opportunities in omicron outbreak

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A social studies class combining online and in-person attendance is held at Izumi Elementary School in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 31.

Schools are struggling to maintain a learning environment for students amid an increasing number of school-related infections with the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Nationwide survey results released on Feb. 4 by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry show that 5,841 public schools from kindergarten through high school — about one public school in six — had closed certain classes, certain grades or even the entire school as of Jan. 26.

Teachers and other school officials continue searching for ways to prevent the further spread of infections while ensuring that students continue to learn.

‘Hybrid’ approach

On Feb. 4, education minister Shinsuke Suematsu said, “Before closing the whole of a school, I hope hybrid forms of learning, which combine commuting to school at staggered times, commuting in separate groups and online learning, are implemented.”

He made the remark while speaking with journalists after he reported on school closures and other educational affairs to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Suematsu indicated his desire to prevent more schools from entirely closing.

In the current sixth wave of infections, in which omicron is the major variant, the greatest share of infection clusters, at 32%, have occurred in schools and other educational institutions. Thus, the risk that the virus could be brought into households is greater than ever.

However, students are now in the important final stage of their studies near the end of the school year, and thus each local government is being pressed to make difficult judgments.

As of the date of the ministry’s survey, the number of daily confirmed infections in Tokyo was about 14,000, and just 15 schools, or 0.7%, were temporarily closed.

In contrast, some municipal governments in Shimane Prefecture decided to close schools in response to a request from the prefectural government, to prevent infections from spreading to children and households. Thus the number of closed schools was much higher at 109, or 27.2%.

Opinions have been expressed that decisions on school closures need to be made while considering the impact on the whole of the society.

At a session of the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee on Feb. 4, Takaji Wakita, director general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said: “Schools and kindergartens are also places for accommodating children so that their parents can maintain their other roles in society. School closures should be kept to a minimum.”

Priority booking

While details of vaccinations of children aged 5 to 11 have not been decided, third vaccine shots for schoolteachers are expected to be a measure to minimize infections in schools.

In Toshima Ward, Tokyo, the ward office aims to implement the booster shots by setting priority quotas for teachers and other workers in nursery schools, kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools.

A 64-year old part-time teacher in the ward-run Shiinamachi Elementary School, who was reemployed after reaching the mandatory retirement age, said: “We must never become sources of infection. I felt truly relieved to get the third vaccine shot.”

Starting on Jan. 27, the Osaka prefectural board of education began an operation in which schools respond to people testing positive by identifying those who have had close contact with them, so that the burden on public health centers can be reduced.

Before that, schools had remained closed until public health centers made judgments about who was a close contact. Thus about 40% of schools run by the prefectural government were closed on a peak day. But since the start of February, the percentage has remained in the range of about 10% to 20%.

Using tablets

As of Feb. 4, classes in three elementary schools run by the Chiyoda Ward Office in Tokyo were suspended.

Elementary and junior high schools in the ward have let students who want to stay home from school participate in lectures using tablets.

On Jan. 31, two students in the ward-run Izumi Elementary School attended a social studies class for fourth graders online. One of them said, “It’s good because I’m not left behind in classes.”

The school’s principal said, “Rather than stop students’ learning process, we want to better utilize online lectures.”

In Nishitokyo, Tokyo, 27 municipal elementary and junior high schools have implemented online class lectures in all grades since Jan. 25. The measure will last until Feb. 10.

During the period, the schools set certain days for students to come to school in person due to concern that students may suffer from loneliness or anxiety about taking entrance exams.

A 44-year-old mother of two in Kawasaki works at home as a translator. The kindergarten attended by her daughter, 4, temporarily closed because of an infection cluster there.

She said: “During the day, I’m busy taking care of my daughter, so I can’t do my job. I want my son’s elementary school to implement thorough prevention measures so that it will not close.”

Prof. Kaori Suetomi of Nihon University, an expert on educational administration studies, said: “For children in the lower elementary grades, online classes are particularly difficult, and it is important for them to be ‘connected’ with teachers and friends. To make sure they continue to learn and have a place to spend the day, and to protect their mental health, a scheme in which local communities support them together with schools is necessary.”