How should safety nets for education be constructed in Japan amid the prolonged school closures due to the new coronavirus outbreak? This is a challenge that the Japanese government and educational institutions are facing as the spread of infections continue.
There are some schools in the country that have been closed for over two months. The cancellation of classes is sure to continue even longer in many regions following the central government's decision to extend the coronavirus state of emergency.
Some schools are left with no alternatives for providing education as they are forced to shut down. While progress on home schooling can be checked when children come to classrooms on a designated school day during the closures, a majority of local governments were not even considering setting up such days according to a survey conducted in April by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Parents are voicing concerns over their children lagging in their studies.
Furthermore, only a few municipal governments are planning to introduce online classes. Experts point to the lack of information and communications technology (ICT) systems in Japan as attributing to the situation, but we suspect that awareness among educators is also playing a major part.
Systems for truant students in which they are considered as attending classes via home schooling using ICT and other tools have been in place for 15 years. However, not many institutions have adpted them. Online learning tool operator SuRaLa Net Co. that supports home schooling says one of the reasons for this is because there is a deep-rooted stereotype in society that people believe studying should be done at school.
The Japanese government is considering introducing a new framework in which the school year starts in September instead of the current academic schedule where new students start school in April in a bid to dissolve region-to-region and household-to-household educational gaps. This is hoped to encourage students to study abroad as schools outside Japan usually start in fall. If implemented, however, the change will have a great impact on society as a whole, such as companies having to review their recruitment period. The government should be cautious about trying to hastily reach such a conclusion.
Perhaps neither the central government nor any local governments expected the school closures to continue for this long. They seem to be neglecting issues at hand, which should be focused as the top priority before introducing the new academic schedule.
The education ministry suggested that schools set days when their students can attend, while spreading out such days by placing priority on first- and sixth-graders as well as third-year students in junior high school. This is aimed at gradually resuming educational activities while paying consideration to entrance exams, but it requires all possible measures to prevent further infections.
Educational institutions need to be prepared for a scenario in which classes cannot be made up even if summer vacation is shortened. The education ministry should decide which course units in the official curriculums can be cut. The scope of the subjects covered in entrance exams needs to be limited accordingly.
What should be done now to ensure that children have opportunities to learn? All relevant parties must each play their part and act promptly to that end.