Tuesday, May 31, 2011

31/05 Fukushima schoolchildren long to play outdoors again


photoSixth-graders at Watari Elementary School in Fukushima sit in the corridor for art class May 24 to reduce their exposure to radiation. (Atsuko Kawaguchi)
FUKUSHIMA--In an art class held in the humid halls of Watari Elementary School here, Toko Matsumoto looks at her gray drawing and frowns.
"If we were outside, we would be able to draw trees and mountains using a variety of colors," the 11-year-old says. "All I can do inside is sketch the corridor and lockers. This only makes my picture look gloomy."
But the children at the school are not allowed to venture outdoors. Nor are they or many other children in Fukushima Prefecture allowed to use swimming pools or wear clothes suited for the warming temperatures.
These rules are aimed at protecting the children from exposure to radiation emanating from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But the schools may be forced to take even more extreme measures.
Concerned parents in the prefecture recently protested the education ministry's acceptable radiation level for schoolchildren of 20 millisieverts a year, a standard critics said was more geared toward workers at nuclear power plants.
The ministry lowered the standard to 1 millisievert a year on May 27.
"Of course, we respect the acceptable standard decided by the government," says Kenichiro Ikeda, a health education official at the prefectural board of education. "But at the same time, we have to come up with measures to give the parents of the children a sense of security."
Among the children themselves, signs of stress were already evident before the ministry lowered its radiation standard.
The municipal Koken Elementary School, in the center of Koriyama city, has prohibited its 770 students from going outdoors for physical education classes or recess since the nuclear crisis started on March 11.
In one homemaking class, sixth-graders were making miso soup. A fan placed at the entrance sent a warm breeze into the already sultry room.
A respite from the rising temperatures is also not in the cards at Watari Elementary School.
At 7:45 a.m. on May 24, pupils arrived at the school, 2 kilometers from JR Fukushima Station and 60 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, all wearing long-sleeved shirts, face masks and hats.
A teacher at the gate scolded a boy whose sleeves were rolled up: "Put on a jacket."
The school has instructed its 680 pupils to cover as much skin as possible.
Principal Tomonori Takahashi says he feels sorry for the youngsters.
"We are having children wear similar clothes that may not be suited for the season," he says.
To block out the sun, the city of Koriyama decided to give blinds made of reeds to all of its 86 municipal elementary and junior high schools. Two additional fans per classroom will also be offered.
Koriyama city decided to remove the top layer of soil at schools although the radiation levels were lower than the limit designated by the ministry, which is providing dosimeters to 1,800 facilities, including all schools in the prefecture.
Fukushima city has closed outdoor pools at its elementary and junior high schools.
New rules are also being applied indoors to limit radiation exposure at schools.
At the end of a homeroom period for a class of sixth-graders at Koken Elementary School, the on-duty student announced, "Clean and tidy your desks."
The students who sat nearest to the corridor moved to the center of the room, while those in the center moved closer to the window. Those with window seats shifted to the corridor.
According to the teacher, the rule is intended to give the students equal access to the cool breeze from the fan.
But teacher Yuichi Onizawa cites another reason. "Radioactivity is higher near the window, so the seating changes are intended to treat each child equally."
Keiko Omori, co-representative of the Great East Japan Earthquake Project of the Fukushima Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists, says the situation at schools in Fukushima Prefecture could end up harming the mental health of the students.
"I think the children are feeling anxieties about not knowing what the future holds for them. If this situation is prolonged, their stress will increase," Omori says.
In the art class in the corridor of Watari Elementary School, some of Toko's classmates sketched a mountain range--seen from the windows.
"I like the scenery outside better," one student said.
Ryu Kuwahata, another sixth-grader, says he is looking forward to a school trip in June to the Aizu district of the prefecture, farther away from the nuclear plant, where he can do what children normally do.
"Here, we cannot play outside," he says. "I want to remove my mask and run around with all my might."
(This article was written by Atsuko Kawaguchi and Toru Furusho.)

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