Coronavirus: Japan issues raft of guidelines with schools to reopen in April after lengthy closure

In a photo taken on Feb 28, 2020, elementary school children disinfect their hands before leaving school in Osaka, Japan.
In a photo taken on Feb 28, 2020, elementary school children disinfect their hands before leaving school in Osaka, Japan.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - All classrooms must be thoroughly ventilated and students should avoid gathering in clusters, Japan's Education Ministry said on Tuesday (March 24) as it issued guidelines with schools set to reopen next month after a long break amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Among other things, students and teachers are advised to wear masks when speaking to one another in close contact, and take their temperatures daily. Home-learning measures should also be in place to ensure that students do not fall behind in the event that they are identified as a close contact of a Covid-19 patient and are unable to attend classes.

A vast majority of schools nationwide had heeded Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's appeal on Feb 27 for a month-long closure to protect children and keep the coronavirus spread in check.

While there has been "no marked improvement" in the Covid-19 situation, Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda said it was untenable to keep schools closed for much longer.

"We want schools to prepare to reopen after the spring break without lowering their guard, on the premise that it continues to be a severe situation where individuals should continue to practise self-restraint," he told reporters.

Most schools in Japan are set to open on April 6; this may vary according to local governments.

Despite the official calls for restraint, many members of the public have already begun to loosen their guard. Rush-hour trains remain crowded, while the past weekend brought usual crowds to Shibuya and Ginza. Many also went ahead with cherry blossom viewing parties at popular areas like Ueno Park.

A mixed martial arts event drew 6,500 fans to the Saitama Super Arena, while about 52,000 people converged at Sendai station where the Olympic torch was on display.

The call for schools to close had been an abrupt, top-down decision made by Mr Abe without the advice of medical experts that had incurred a backlash from working parents who did not have sufficient time to react, and the U-turn comes despite a steady increase in infections.

 
 
 
 

As of 5pm on Tuesday, there were 1,145 cases in Japan, which has been testing at a fraction of its full capacity. The Health Ministry has rejected calls for more widespread tests given that this may lead to unnecessary panic and inundate the healthcare system, although critics have said this could result in milder cases slipping under the radar. Already, Japan is seeing increasing numbers of "unlinked" cases.

The cases include 154 infections in Tokyo, whose Governor Yuriko Koike said she will not rule out a total lockdown were there to be a spike in cases.

The government on Tuesday warned schools to avoid situations that meet all three of the following criteria: (i) bad ventilation; (ii) large crowds; and (iii) conversations at short distance.

Schools must also devise initiatives to ensure proper hand-washing etiquette, maintain proper cleanliness and hygiene, and ascertain that social distancing takes place at all times, including during morning assembly and recess.

With bullying a serious issue at Japanese schools, the Education Ministry also implored schools to protect the mental health of those who are infected or identified as a close contact of a Covid-19 patient.

Mr Hagiuda said that going forward, the national government will leave it up to local municipalities to decide on the best course forward, given that the prevalence of Covid-19 cases drastically varies between areas.

"The circumstances of each area is different, and it will be much more effective to judge based on the actual ground situation rather than dictating a policy measure nationwide," he said, adding that the national government will continue to actively collect data and provide advice.