Paralympic Games student spectator program appears likely to be scaled back after a wave of withdrawals

Some local governments and individual schools are opting out due to an ongoing surge of Covid-19 infections in Tokyo.

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Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games - The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 24, 2021. Flags of the Paralympics and Japan during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games - The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 24, 2021. Flags of the Paralympics and Japan during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Organizers of the recently inaugurated Tokyo Paralympic Games are following through on their plans to bring tens of thousands of schoolchildren to watch the event, despite some municipalities and schools pulling their students out due to ongoing high levels of COVID-19.

According to news site Jiji, local governments in three wards of Tokyo recently canceled their participation in the Paralympics’ school spectator program for safety reasons. Every single school in the Shizuoka Prefecture region has also withdrawn their students according to the Shizuoka Shimbun newspaper, and The Sankei News reports that the number of audience members signed up in Chiba Prefecture has declined by 13,000, over a third of the previous total.

Designed to accommodate between 130,000 and 140,000 students, the Games’ school spectator initiative allows groups of schoolchildren special permission to attend Paralympic sporting events “where local authorities or school administrations request [it] in response to the wishes of parents and others”, as stated in a joint press release by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Japanese organizers.

A teacher gives a lecture to 6th grade students about the Olympic Games in the classroom at Shiratori elementary school in Tokyo, Japan, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Irene Wang
A teacher gives a lecture to 6th grade students about the Olympic Games in the classroom at Shiratori elementary school in Tokyo, Japan, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Irene Wang

The general public was banned from Paralympic Games events on August 16th due to the high rates of COVID-19 in Tokyo, with 4,220 new cases reported on Monday and as many as 5,534 per day last week. While participants in the school program remain exempt from this rule, it is likely that the number of children attending will be lower than initially targeted.

The decision to invite schoolchildren to the Paralympics has the backing of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, as well as the IPC and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, who view the initiative as a unique opportunity to inspire young people and promote the inclusion of those with disabilities in Japanese society.

“It is very, very clear that since the beginning, there is a significance that schoolchildren watch and see those competitions live at the venues,” Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said. “We are absolutely keen to prevail the values of the Paralympic Games to these generations who will sustain our society in the future.”

“We endorse the initiative because we believe it is an important element of legacy by bringing school kids to the Games,” IPC President Andrew Parsons told the Associated Press upon the program’s confirmation a week ago. “But of course, it is imperative these kids must come to the Games in a safe way.”

IPC President Andrew Parsons
IPC President Andrew Parsons

Speaking at a Monday press conference, Takaya further expressed confidence that the virus mitigation protocols in place for young viewers of the Games would prevent significant levels of transmission from occurring.

“Participating schools are requesting their children to monitor their health situation two weeks before spectating and also on the day of the respective event. We will have those children go to school themselves and then after school, there will be dedicated transport”, Takaya told reporters.

“At competition venues, we’ll have dedicated seats for our school programs and in those areas social distancing will be in place. Finally those children are requested to wear masks at all times and sanitization of hands will be in place. With these measures we will be able to implement the school program.”

Not all officials are on board with the plan, however. Shigeru Omi, the head of Japan’s pandemic task force, criticized the decision to allow an audience at a parliamentary subcommittee last week, stating: “Now is the time for the central and local governments to take stronger leadership than ever in tackling the [COVID-19] situation”. Four of the five members of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Board of Education are likewise on the record as being opposed.

The IPC and Games organizers maintain that having children watch sporting events in-person will be safe and worthwhile.

“We wouldn’t support the idea if it couldn’t be done safely. It is the same with the Paralympic Games. We wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t believe we could deliver the Games safely”, IPC spokesperson Craig Spence said on Saturday.

“If you look at one of the great legacies of the Sydney 2000 Games, it was the school program. Hundreds of thousands of children came to the Games. Those youngsters are now in jobs, in positions of power in Australia. That’s why Australia is one of the most inclusive nations in terms of persons with disabilities”, he elaborated.

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