International Policy Digest

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Culture /24 Apr 2020
04.24.20

How COVID-19 Has Been Affecting Japanese Education

The coronavirus, first confirmed in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, has been raging around the world. More than 1.8 million people are currently infected with COVID-19 and there have been 197,000 deaths as of April 25. In many countries, self-quarantine has been strongly encouraged and the movement of people has slowed sharply. The economic impact brought by this coronavirus has been so severe that many countries have seen unprecedented and record drops in their GDP. In fact, China recorded the biggest drop on record, at a negative 6.8 percent.

Japan is undoubtedly feeling the blunt of COVID-19 with infections spreading across the entire country since its first confirmed case back in January. The rapid spread of the virus has encouraged the government to declare a state of emergency, while many employees have been asked to work from home. Though, given Japanese business culture, the practice of working from home has been challenging.

The virus has taken a significant toll on Japan’s educational system. Many countries’ education sectors have often been overlooked in the overall picture of the virus as governments scramble to aid their economies. UNESCO has announced that approximately 850 million children worldwide are out of school due to this global pandemic, while challenges regarding implementing a sustainable out-of-class alternative continue to pile up. As of mid-April, 45 out of the 47 prefectures in Japan have closed elementary and high schools. Boards of education and faculty are overwhelmed with establishing online classrooms, facilitating the rest of the school year, and other associated tasks. With a lack of a unified response on behalf of the education system, Japan has some unique challenges with this virus.

Class compensation

As mentioned, a large number of schools in Japan are currently closed which calls for alternative means to compensate for classes. In many Western countries, classes have transitioned online by using video calling services such as Zoom. This platform ensures that students can continue to have access to education despite being outside the physical classroom. Arguably, this transition was made easier due to the integration of technology in the classroom under normal circumstances.

However, many schools in Japan do not exercise education using information and communication technology (ICT). According to a 2018 PISA ICT utilization survey, Japan ranked lowest among OECD countries in terms of time spent using digital devices in the classroom. One of the reasons explaining this is thought to be the existing “ICT education gap” in Japan. In other words, Japan is lacking the availability of ICT equipment in schools.

Well-financed private schools have computers or tablets that are available to every single student, and routinely offer online classes. On the other hand, most public schools do not have the financial resources to provide such tools for all students. In many cases, public schools do not have the ability to provide any sort of online education. The impact of this ICT education gap is coming into sharp focus in this unusual situation. There are no major disruptions to the curriculum in the Japanese private school system because they offer daily online classes that offer a substitute for in-person classes. However, public schools currently only distribute assignments and are not able to proceed with the daily classes which significantly impacts their curriculums. It is difficult for many schools with inadequate ICT infrastructure to offer online classes during this period, and the impact on students’ learning is inevitable. An issue, therefore, emerges in which private school students will be much better off academically considering their access to online education. Meanwhile, the ability for public school students to access the same basic education will vary, fostering a significant knowledge gap in the country for the younger demographic.

High School seniors will be particularly affected by ICT issues. In Japan, entrance examinations of universities are generally held from January to March. If students are not able to study the required content, their ability to pursue higher education will be severely hampered. An issue, therefore, emerges in which private school students will be much better off academically considering their access to online education. Meanwhile, the ability for public school students to access the same basic education will vary, fostering a significant knowledge and university admission gap in the country for this demographic.

Infection control in schools

Currently, the Japanese government is proposing the “three Cs” as a guideline to prevent the spread of infection. The three Cs include closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings. Infectious risk is particularly high when the three Cs overlap. Schools are thought to hold all of these factors in addition to others that pertain to the school environment in particular. Most of the students in the school I attend utilize public transportation. A transportation method with a high risk of infection rate. The number of students using public transport is unspecified, further exemplifying the need to exercise extra precautionary measures considering one may be unaware that they have come in close contact with someone using high-risk services.

Currently, many school administrators are implementing basic measures such as constantly opening windows for ventilation, having everyone wear a mask, and reducing the number of people in classrooms. While the school I attend has introduced these measures, I feel as though they are not strong enough to effectively prevent the spread of infection. A trend has emerged in which despite being told to exercise these precautionary measures, some students do not abide. In fact, when my school had three days of extracurricular classes at the end of March, the 40 people in one class were densely packed and only a few windows were open due to bad weather. Moreover, the number of people, students, teachers, and associated workers included, wearing masks was limited due to supply issues.

From these observations, I concluded it would be almost impossible to have zero infections in these environments. Of course, some schools have taken thorough measures, but for most schools, it is extremely hard to reconcile normal educational activities with properly taking infection prevention measures.

Decision on whether or not to close school

Debates over whether or not to close schools in Japan has been frequent. School closures in March were nationwide, directed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). However, it was the responsibility of each municipality to decide whether to extend the closure after April. In some prefectures, such as Tokyo and Osaka, where the number of infected people continues to increase rapidly, schools were to close until May while other prefectures decided to reopen. The reasons for not suspending schools into April nationwide include the difficulty of making up for classes online and the challenges associated with instituting, maintaining, and ensuring unified infection prevention in all municipalities.

In the prefectures where the school closure measures were not extended, many people petitioned for the continuation of preventative measures. The movement included students appealing to boards of education to give more consideration for student safety. Some students went as far as protesting the reopening of schools as a whole. From these movements, I felt that the students’ sense of crisis, fear, and urgency over the virus has been extremely high. Considering the fact that climate change movements or some other youth actions that are regularly occurring in Western countries have not been active in Japan, I was surprised by the reach and popularity of virus-related student movements.

A fundamental problem is that the Japanese government hasn’t shared any criteria or regulations for school closure under any circumstances, emphasizing an area of society that rarely receives a unified response. MEXT should establish a guideline that includes a specific criterion under which nationwide school closures should occur so that future generations who might run into a similar situation will be able to avoid confusion.

As in other countries, Japanese educational institutions have been greatly affected by coronavirus. As Japan lags behind other developed countries in the field of education in terms of ICT use, I believe that Japan needs to adopt its own unique methods for compensating classes. Japan has a large base of disasters in which it can draw emergency response tactics from, such as the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. However, a global pandemic was unprecedented and the specificities associated with ensuring a functioning society amidst such circumstances had not been worked out. To ease the challenges accompanied by a fragmented education sector, national criterion pertaining to the operations of the education system amidst a disaster is essential.