Yuka Omori and Hiromi Tanaka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
FUKUSHIMA–The number of new students enrolling in primary schools this spring in six municipalities affected by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is expected to be half that of the children currently in the first grade, it has been learned.
A total of 76 new students will enter classes at the primary schools, which have moved to other municipalities because they were located in or near no-entry zones created by the government.
The six municipalities, all located in Fukushima Prefecture, are Namie, Okuma, Tomioka, Hirono, Kawauchi and Iitate. A primary school and middle school for each of them has been opened either in the municipalities where their municipal government offices have been temporarily relocated, or in neighboring towns.
About 20 percent of the 160 sixth-grade students currently enrolled in the six primary schools may enroll in middle schools operated by different municipalities.
School administrators and community representatives are trying to stem the falling student numbers at the schools run by the six municipalities, with one person saying, “If we cannot keep schools active, it will become difficult to maintain local communities.”
Fujio Shono, head of the Tomioka board of education, is worried about the situation. “No new students will enter our primary school this year. We don’t know what to do if we cannot get students in the future,” he said.
Tomioka, which is in the no-entry zone, has moved its town office to Koriyama in the same prefecture. About 3,200 residents, or roughly 20 percent of the town’s population, also moved to the city of Koriyama.
Tomioka reopened its primary school at the site of a former factory in the neighboring town of Miharu in September last year. A total of 45 students attend the school and travel to and from their temporary housing by bus. The journey takes more than an hour each way for those who live far from the school. A 35-year-old company employee, who moved to Koriyama from Tomioka, will send his son, who will enter primary school in spring, to a school run by the Koriyama government. The man said he will do this because, “If something happens, I can’t quickly go to my son if it takes more than 30 minutes to travel to the school by car.”
Namie’s town office and primary school have been moved to nearby Nihonmatsu. Only one new first-year student will enter the school. Namie town is in the government’s no-entry and expanded evacuation zones. The town’s board of education says many students who would normally enter Namie’s primary school are instead enrolling at schools in the municipalities that they have relocated to. This is because the children want to attend the same schools as their friends in kindergarten.
Kawauchi’s village office has been relocated to Koriyama, but it plans to return to its village in April. The principal of a private kindergarten in Koriyama said, “Many parents say, ‘We cannot bring our children back [to the village] where radiation levels are high.'”
Regarding the impact of reduced student numbers, a 51-year-old vice principal of a primary school in one of the affected municipalities said, “We can give lessons that would be more suitable for smaller groups of children, but children will lose opportunities to develop through interaction with their peers, such as discussions during Japanese language classes.”
If student numbers further decrease, it will become difficult to keep the schools open. A Fukushima prefectural board of education official said: “This is a matter for each municipal board of education. But if a school has no students, it may be closed.”
Schools are indispensable for maintaining communities at each of the affected municipalities. Kaname Hirose, the head of Iitate’s board of education, is concerned about the situation. “Schools and residents support each other by forming communities,” Hirose said. “If the village has no school, children have no place to return to, and the area will deteriorate.”
Hirose said that before the nuclear crisis, local residents cleared snow from the school route in winter and children performed plays and dances at a nursing home in the village.
A survey, conducted by Fukushima University in September last year on households in eight municipalities around the crippled nuclear power plant, revealed that the younger residents are, the less hope they have of returning to their hometown. The survey found more than half of the respondents aged 34 or younger said they had no intention of returning.
To combat this, a group including parents of students attending Tomioka primary has begun offering information about local schools, and is using its website to call on residents to participate in meetings. Takashi Ichimura, 42, a representative of the group, said, “We have to keep townspeople connected to ensure they return someday.”
In Namie, teachers have been sending letters to former students who transferred to other schools. The town government says directors of junior sport clubs have opened a training camp for children who have scattered due to the crisis.
Associate Prof. Tsuneya Sakurai from Takasaki City University of Economics is a member of Namie town’s restoration study committee. He pointed out why making efforts to maintain local communities is necessary. “It is children who bear the role of restoring communities in the future. Even if they are attending schools in areas where they have been relocated, they need something that makes them feel like they still belong to Namie,” he said.
(Feb. 21, 2012)