Many schools across Japan will close during the coronavirus outbreak in line with a request from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even though amid public outcry on Friday he reiterated that local authorities have final say.
Abe's sudden request to close all elementary, junior high and high schools in the country from Monday, several weeks ahead of the start of their spring break in late March, has triggered confusion among teachers, students and parents who say they have had no time to prepare for the unexpected break.
On Thursday, Abe surprised many when he announced the school closure plan through the end of the spring break in early April, when a new school year starts in Japan, at a government task force meeting about the virus. It was formally relayed to local education boards on Friday.
Education minister Koichi Hagiuda indicated school boards can be flexible in deciding when and how long the schools will be closed. "It is okay to make various attempts in reflecting the situations of the local community and schools," he said.
Kanazawa Mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano said he does not plan on complying with the government request, saying there was not sufficient time for debate or to notify people about it.
"There are many small- and medium-sized businesses in the countryside. Parents taking leave or reducing working hours would have a major impact on such businesses," said the mayor of the central Japan city.
Hagiuda said the government wants children to remain indoors at home during the break to prevent the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus, originating in China.
"We ask for the cooperation of relevant ministries and agencies so that pupils and students will stay at home in principle and not go outside unless it is necessary," said Hagiuda.
"Experts have been saying schools have a high risk of group infection," the minister said in defending the government request. He also called on local education boards to make efforts to avoid significant disruption to study schedules.
Despite the option given to keep schools open, some believe it is not realistic in the face of growing worries about the spread of infections.
"We will be blamed by parents if we do not close when the country's leader is telling us to do so," said a male teacher in his 30s working at a public elementary school in western Japan.
Aside from the schools, nurseries and other child care providers have been asked to stay open in principle, but some said they cannot expand their capacity and accept additional children.
"I think (the school closure) is pointless unless we stop going outside or using child care services" from the standpoint of preventing the spread of the virus, said a woman in her 40s with two elementary school children in the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo.
Like many working parents who have no one else to look after their young children, Ayako Sasaki, 35, with a daughter attending a public elementary school in the northeastern Japan city of Akita, said, "I really don't know what to do."
"I am in the hospitality industry so I can't work from home and can't rely on my parents who live far away," she said.
Referring to the impact the government's decision has on the lives of not just children but their parents, Hagiuda said, "We, as a government, will deal with it in a responsible manner." But he did not elaborate nor give any detail about concrete steps to be taken.
Welfare minister Katsunobu Kato said his ministry will liaise with local governments with regard to care services for elementary school children, citing the issue of how many staff they can secure to cover the period.
Abe said he will request businesses to make it easy for workers to take paid leave, and said the government is considering ways to deal with part-time workers whose income will be reduced during the period when they cannot work because of the need to take care of children.
Abe is scheduled to hold a press conference at 6 p.m. on Saturday.