Tokyo – While COVID-19 has sowed uncertainty and chaos in American education and left many kids to learn remotely, Japanese schools are back in session, thanks to a much lower rate of community spread of the coronavirus. Since new daily COVID-19 case numbers peaked at 1,605 in early August, infections have dropped to less than half that in recent weeks. 

Japan’s population is equal to about 38% of the United States’, but it has only 1% as many confirmed coronavirus cases.

The government’s antiviral campaign has been heavily criticized as reactive and tentative, but the debate has been mostly free of the partisanship that has dogged anti-virus efforts in the U.S. 

Masks, for instance, are about as controversial here as wearing hats. Perhaps because Japanese live cheek-by-jowl in big cities, mask-wearing is a time-honored defense during the cold and flu season, as well as in the spring, when allergies kick in.

CBS News traveled this week to the northeast corner of Tokyo to visit staff and 247 pupils at the East Kanamachi Elementary school. Kids began clambering in the door at 8 a.m. with their heavy book bags. As all students do in the country, they went straight to their assigned cubbyholes in the school lobby, trading street shoes for the soft-soled slip-ons worn in classes.

Like generations before them, Yuka Katayama’s first grade class bowed to begin the day’s studies. But there’s nothing typical about school now. Every child wore a gaily-colored mask and was seated behind a personal vinyl shield – newly purchased by the school PTA for about $10 each.

Ms. Katayama, wearing a face shield along with her comfy maxi skirt and tennis shoes, was clearly multitasking more than normal. Instead of asking kids to pass papers down the rows, she handed each child the language exercises herself, to minimize contact among students. She cracked open windows just enough to keep air flowing, without risking a kid falling through. 

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When it was time to head to the big hand-washing sink in the hallway, she kept an eagle eye on each pupil, patiently reminding them again and again about the colorful markers on the floor meant to keep them from breathing on one another.

“First graders like to get up close to each other, so social distancing is a challenge,” she said. “It’s really hard to teach a regular class while keeping everyone safe.”

On the plus side: “They’re first graders — so they think this is normal!”

Things got trickier at noon. In Japanese schools, lunchtime is regarded as part of the learning experience. The kids take turns dressing up in white chef outfits and serving up stew and rice to their classmates. East Kanamachi Elementary has gone whole-hog for lunch, even winning awards for its use of local produce and creative recipes. 

But Ms. Katayama struggled to get the children on board with anti-coronavirus protocols. Preventing kids of that age from talking amongst themselves and bunching up is a tall order. 

In Japan, reading, writing and arithmetic have been augmented by the “3Cs” — teaching kids to avoid close conversation, crowds and closed spaces. Stickers everywhere are a constant reminder to socially distance.

“Stay far apart physically — but close, spiritually,” they read.

Typical classrooms in Japan would seem to flunk the 3C test, however. In Ms. Katayama’s classroom, desks were spaced just enough to walk between. Regulations allow up to 40 children per classroom. 

Last month, a panel of scholars and education researchers in Tokyo launched a petition to urge rapid adoption of smaller classes. Class size “should be reduced to 30 right now, and quickly, to 20,” the panel said.  

Japan’s Riken research institute, working with Kobe University, argues that even large classes can be held safely — provided ventilation is sufficient.

A recent simulation on “Fugaku” – Japan’s new supercomputer (the world’s fastest) – of 40 students at their desks in an air-conditioned room of typical size concluded that cracking just one window and one door on the diagonal opposite side provided enough airflow to prevent viral spread.  

/ Credit: CBS News

Outside on the playground, a PE class was in progress, revealing another fine line teachers are trying to navigate. Kids have never been more in need of exercise; at East Kanamachi, teachers say kids have less physical strength and injure more easily, and a number put on weight during the period of COVID-19 restrictions. 

At junior high and high schools, teachers are reporting a surfeit of sprains and pulled muscles as kids emerge from shelter-at-home and school closures to try to sprint and jump again.

A survey by the Japanese Clinical Orthopaedic Association of 817 students from elementary through high school found 35.3% of grade schoolers said they had no stamina, and 36.9% said they had gotten heavier. The panel warned that a month of inactivity would take three months to recover from, and urged schools to take a go-slow approach to gym class.

But with social-distancing mandates still in order, teachers have had to get creative on the playground. 

The students were allowed to go without masks – essential on this hot, humid day to reduce the risk of heat-related illness.

“Ballgames and close contact are out. We try to keep them all facing one direction, and avoid shouting,” the school’s health instructor said. 

Principal Mari Kawamura conceded that hoping for total compliance from six-year-olds is futile. 

“Instead of banning all conversation and keeping kids in a constant state of fear and vigilance, it’s better to get the basic safeguards right,” she said. Anxious teachers and parents are hoping that strategy works. 

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