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Stress rises among Hokkaido families as kids home alone due to school closures

Masaki and Akemi Higashihara, both elementary school students, are seen playing cards at home while both their parents are out working, in Higashi Ward, Sapporo, on March 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

SAPPORO -- Elementary, junior high and high schools remain closed in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido as the new coronavirus continues to spread, leading to an increase in stress levels among family members.

For some families where both parents work to raise school-age children, it has forced them to leave them home unsupervised, and the structure of family life has taken on sudden changes for both parents and kids alike.

Takako Higashihara, 47, a resident of Higashi Ward, Sapporo, and mother to a boy in the sixth grade and a girl in the third grade of elementary school, has a job related to child welfare. She normally only works on weekends when her husband is off, but has seen her working hours rise due to an increase in people using welfare services following the school closures. Now she's attending work between five and six days a week from morning to night.

"Because of the school closures, I have to go to work every day, and my own children are left home alone. I'm physically exhausted, and each day has become so busy," she sighed.

The sudden change both in the work and home environment has meant she wasn't able to place her children into day care, which requires applications to be made in advance. Additionally, her concerns over potential infection have meant she feels she can't ask her elderly parents for help.

After deciding on a series of rules with her children, including that they are not to answer the front door intercom, and that they have to confirm the number of who is calling before picking up the phone, she decided to let them stay at home together alone. In her free moments at work she calls home, but still feels it's not enough to ease her concerns about their safety.

Higashihara leaves home for work just past 8 a.m., and gets home at about 6 p.m. Then it's a rush to prepare dinner, and she barely has time to sit down. Her cooking time has shortened, and frozen foods that wouldn't ordinarily make it to the family table are making more frequent appearances.

She's so pressed for time that she's been unable to fulfill some of her children's requests, and with both partners busy, there have been arguments over how to divide the household chores between them.

While alone at home, the children pass the time studying, playing card games and doing other activities, but the stress can build with just the two of them there, and they are fighting more, too.

Higashihara's eldest son, 12-year-old Masaki, just finished his junior high school entrance exams in February, and it's been decided that from April he'll attend a private school in Tokyo. He's disappointed that just when he thought he had a moment to play with his friends, the time was snatched away from them. Her daughter, Akemi, 9, said that she feels lonely without her mother there. Plans to see their grandparents in March have also been canceled, they said.

Municipal elementary, junior and high schools in Sapporo are set to recommence lessons from March 16. Higashihara said she had mixed feelings: "I'm glad there's been a decision to reopen schools, but I wanted to let my son, who studied so hard, have time to play with his friends. I also wonder what will happen to the study my daughter missed while she was off school."

(Japanese original by Mitsuko Imai, Hokkaido News Department)

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