Photo/Illutration Students at Tachiai Elementary School in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward attend a morning assembly in the school playground on May 2. (Chika Yamamoto)

Some schools across Japan are relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions and have resumed school gatherings while taking measures to prevent infections and allowing face-to-face lunches in classrooms.

One such school is Kaishin Daini Junior High School in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward.

Around 140 students in their third year at the public school boarded a Shinkansen at Ueno Station on May 10, heading on a three-day school trip to Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

“We hope to learn a lot from this trip by helping each other,” said a student representative at the ceremony to start the trip.

The school canceled its school trip in fiscal 2020 due to the pandemic.

The trip in fiscal 2021 was only for two days and rescheduled from October last year to March this year.

This fiscal year, students will enjoy a three-day trip as they did before the pandemic.

Most of around 600 public junior high schools in Tokyo canceled their school trips in fiscal 2020, according to a public interest incorporated foundation called Nihon Shugaku Ryoko Kyokai (Japan association of school trips).

In fiscal 2021, about 250 of them allowed school trips to take place. This fiscal year, almost all are planning to do so.

On the morning of May 2, around 570 students from Tachiai Elementary School in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward were in the school playground to attend a morning assembly.

They wore masks and stood in lines with spaces between them to prevent the spread of infections.

A loud “Good morning!” rang out from the pupils. 

The school started holding a weekly morning assembly in the school playground again in April, after having online meetings until March.

“We now have common understanding of how to prevent infections after accumulating knowledge on it," said Masashi Takibuchi, the school's principal.

"If we continue depriving pupils of opportunities to learn from talking with their peers, there will be no point in learning at schools.”

The education ministry updated in April its guideline for schools on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

It encourages schools to resume activities such as group work or indoor chorus sessions once the number of infections drops and stabilizes in their areas, while at the same time still warning that these activities could risk the spread of infections.

Some local authorities have completely shifted their policies to relax restrictions.

Chiba Prefecture’s board of education in April instructed public schools in the prefecture to significantly ease restrictions on students’ activities on the condition that they implement basic measures to prevent infections.

The board’s notice to schools said “the general rule” is to allow group learning or out-of-school lessons to take place.

It said that schools’ sports day competitions should include “various events” and that schools should allow face-to-face lunches on the condition students remain silent while eating.

In contrast, other local authorities remain cautious about loosening restrictions.

Saitama city’s board of education has maintained some restrictions even after the lifting of the pre-emergency measures in March. For example, it’s still asking schools in the city to refrain from holding training camps for extracurricular activities, if possible.

Schools in the city are expected to scale down their sports day competitions with fewer events this year again as they did last year.

“We are unsure about how widespread the infections will be," said a board official. "Some parents are unhappy with the uncertainty.”

(This article was written by Chika Yamamoto and Yukihito Takahama.)