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Kids of single moms, non-graduates disadvantaged in Japan's COVID school closure: study

Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, is seen requesting that nationwide elementary, junior high, senior high, and special needs schools temporarily close, at a meeting of the government's task force on infections with the coronavirus at the prime minister's office on Feb. 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- A study of children's learning during the nationwide temporary school closure in spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic has found that kids with parents who don't have university degrees or are from single-mother families tended to have difficulties receiving educational assistance.

    The study, conducted by a group including professor Takayasu Nakamura of the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Education, underlines the possibility that more socially disadvantaged students experience a greater negative impact from temporary school closures.

    The survey was entrusted to Nakamura's research group by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and done in February 2021. Targeting about 9,000 fifth graders and 9,000 second-grade middle school students, as well as their guardians, the survey asked about parents' academic background, the state of learning at home amid school closures, and other factors through each elementary and junior high school. The group then did analysis by categorizing families into five types: households where both parents are university graduates, households with one university graduate parent, households where neither parent graduated university, households with single mothers who have college degrees and families with non-college graduate single mothers.

    Some 13.9% of second-year middle school students in households where both parents went to university said they don't have anyone to help them study either "every day, or almost every day" or "once or twice a week." The figure was 18.8% for families with one graduate parent, 23.3% for households with no graduate parents, 20.6% for families with single mothers who have college degrees, and 28.6% for families with single mothers without degrees.

    While 20.8% of middle schoolers with two graduate parents had situations where they didn't quite understand homework either "every day, or almost every day," or "once or twice a week," nearly double this number -- or 38.4% -- of single-mother families with no college educational background said the same situations applied to them.

    It was also found that among the study approaches children took during the school closure period, some methods were more likely to lead to discrepancies depending on home environments while others were not as prone to inconsistencies.

    Only small discrepancies existed among different family groups regarding school homework. About 57.1% of second-grade middle schoolers from families with two graduate parents said they did their homework almost daily -- the highest percentage among all groups. But 44% of children from single-mother families with no college background also reported doing homework almost every day, a relatively small difference between the former group.

    When asked whether they engaged in studies apart from homework almost every day, 42.2% of families with two graduate parents said "yes," while less than half that proportion -- 19.4% -- of single-mother families with no college degree said the same.

    Takayasu Nakamura, professor at the University of Tokyo's graduate school, is seen in this photo provided by him.

    The research group said, "Presenting appropriate homework during school closures may help close gaps between different households' learning environments."

    High proportions of all groups answered that they "properly" studied with school-provided printed materials, with 78.9% for children from double graduate-parent families and 62.3% of kids from single-mother families without a college education answering the same.

    Though there were small discrepancies between households in engagement with printouts, a different trend was observed in digital-based learning forms using digital material, online communication with teachers, and other methods. Only 10% to 40% in each household category said they did the work "properly," and there also seemed to be tendencies for disparities based on parents' academic background. It is thought that many children find it easier to engage in assignments that clearly lay out required tasks, as in printed learning material.

    Nakamura said similar trends were observed among fifth graders responding to the survey, and commented, "The results suggest that households where both parents don't have college degrees and single-mother families may have needed support during temporary school closures, because they didn't have time to attend to their children's education. When considering temporarily canceling classes, keeping these consequences in mind might be necessary."

    (Japanese original by Akira Okubo, Tokyo City News Department)

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