Photo/IllutrationStudents at Yamakiya Elementary School in Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, learn how to program drones. (Hiroki Koizumi)

Local governments in Fukushima Prefecture have spent billions of yen to create ideal education environments, including new or renovated school buildings, high-tech classes, free lunches and uniforms, and long-distance buses.

But these schools may be forced to close down. There just aren’t enough children in areas near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to sustain their operations.

The enrollment figures have dispirited local government officials, who agree that schools and their students are the key to recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

“The laughter and healthy faces of children provide hope to the local communities,” Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori has said.

The Fukushima prefectural government in April 2018 reopened eight elementary and six junior high schools after evacuation orders were lifted for most of Katsurao village in June 2016 and partially lifted for four other municipalities in spring 2017.

One of the reopened schools was Yamakiya Elementary School in Kawamata, which provides classes in computer programming to operate drones.

The school, however, will likely have to close its doors again when the new school year starts in April.

Currently, the school has six teachers for five students, all of whom are sixth-graders who will graduate soon.

No new students indicated an interest in attending the school as of the Feb. 28 deadline for applications.

The school is located in a mountainous area about 50 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

On Feb. 7, school and town education board officials held an explanatory session for parents who reside outside of the school district. One parent was given a personal tour of how the school environment has been improved.

About 1.1 billion yen ($9.9 million) was spent to repair the school building. An indoor pool was constructed, and tablet computers are available for all students.

But the parent declined to commit to the school.

Local demographics are working against the local education officials.

The Yamakiya district of Kawamata has a population of about 330 people, and only one has not yet reached school age.

Yamakiya Junior High School, which has 10 students, uses the same buildings as the elementary school.

But the junior high school will also receive no first-year students in April, meaning it will have only three third-year students for the new school year.

With no new students, the junior high school could also be forced to shut down from the 2020 school year.

Schools that reopened in April 2018 in the four other municipalities face similar problems.

The 14 reopened schools expect a total enrollment from April of 119 students, a decline of 11.9 percent from last year.

The municipalities have taken enormous steps to attract students. They spent a total of 9.3 billion yen to construct or repair buildings for the 14 schools. Uniforms and lunches are provided free, and some municipalities operate free school buses for students who live away from the community.

However, only 135 students were enrolled in the 14 schools in April 2018, just 3.4 percent of the number who attended the same schools before the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Various factors have led to the parents’ decisions not to have their children return to the schools in their former communities.

Some families who evacuated have established new lives in new locations. Others remain concerned about the effects of radiation on their children’s health.

And some worry about the small number of students attending the schools.

The three elementary schools and one junior high school in Iitate have a total enrollment of 75, by far the largest number among the five municipalities.

About 80 percent of those students live outside of the village. Iitate officials operate 12 buses and cars to take those students to the schools from their new homes.

All school supplies, uniforms and gym clothes are provided free to the students.

Katsurao village, with a population of about 1,400, also covers all educational expenses for the 18 students attending two schools. In addition, households that reside in the village are given monthly subsidies of 20,000 yen for each child 15 years old or younger.

Although a Katsurao education board official said such measures were intended to display the many advantages of attending school in the village, there has been no noticeable increase in students.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hiroki Koizumi, Hiroshi Fukatsu and Daiki Ishizuka.)