TOKYO -- The Japanese government decided Friday not to extend its request for nationwide school closures, leaving the decision on whether to resume classes in the hands of local authorities that now must gauge the risks for themselves.
Public schools in Tokyo's Kita Ward are slated to hold their entrance and opening ceremonies for the new school year and restart classes on April 6 and April 7.
"It's hard to predict how things will change with the outbreak," said a representative from the ward's board of education. "We want to start everything as scheduled, but we're not sure how it will go."
Schools largely heeded Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's call last month for a shutdown through the end of spring break in early April. As recently as Monday, 99% of public elementary and middle schools were closed, according to the education ministry.
But an expert panel assembled by the government indicated Thursday that areas that have seen no cases can resume school activities once they have properly assessed the risks.
These include the cities of Toyama and Shizuoka, which have begun reopening schools since Monday, citing the burden that prolonged closures place on students' parents and guardians and the impact on younger children's studies. Saga Prefecture had been set to restart classes Monday but opted against it when a COVID-19 case was discovered there on March 13.
Kagoshima Prefecture, where no cases had been confirmed through Thursday, has chosen to keep prefectural high schools closed through March 25.
"We want to start the new term in April as planned," a board of education representative said, while warning that this could change if someone in the prefecture tests positive for the virus.
Abe said Friday that with the start of the new school year approaching, the education ministry should quickly draw up specific policies on reopening schools. Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda told reporters that the ministry aims to announce guidelines next week.
While Japan has managed to keep the outbreak under control so far, "cases have gradually been increasing, mainly in urban areas," Abe said, citing the expert panel's report Thursday. The panel warned of the possibility of large coronavirus clusters or explosive surges in cases, which may force the government to resort to lockdowns like those seen in other countries.
The report set out three sets of recommendations for local responses, depending on conditions in the area -- whether cases are on the rise, the outbreak is getting under control or no cases have been confirmed.
Areas in the last category should resume relatively low-risk activities, including school, outdoor sports and use of cultural facilities, if they deem it safe enough. Areas where the outbreak is subsiding -- which may include prefectures that have seen no new cases for more than two weeks, such as Okinawa -- should take care to avoid activities that risk spreading the virus and consider gradually reintroducing less risky activities.