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The pandemonium of working at home as COVID forces day care, school closures in Japan

A handout from a day care center stating that the facility may be temporarily closed if a close contact tests positive is seen on Jan. 28, 2022. (Mainichi/Yuki Noguchi)

OSAKA -- Amid the coronavirus outbreak, this Mainichi Shimbun reporter and mother of two was barely able to go to work while looking after my children when the outbreak resulted in the temporary closure of facilities and classes. Trying to work remotely while soothing a crying child resulted in pandemonium -- a situation in which many other parents and guardians have recently found themselves.

    I work at the Osaka head office of The Mainichi Newspapers Co. and live with my husband, who is self-employed, my 8-year-old daughter, and my 2-year-old son. On Jan. 11, when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was becoming more widespread, I went to pick up my son from day care and received a handout. It read, "There is a person who has become a close contact (of someone infected with the coronavirus) and is currently undergoing a PCR test. If the test is positive, the local government may ask us to close the facility."

    Without any information on who the close contact was, I told my office that I would be working from home just in case. In addition to not being able to interview people face-to-face, I faced the prospect of having to rush to pick up my son if his day care were suddenly closed. I opened the facility's website again and again, but the information was not updated.

    Three days later, on Jan. 14, the day care center announced it would temporarily close for 10 days as the close contact had tested positive. As I worked from home with my laptop open, my son, who is old enough to show an interest in anything, came over to touch it. I closed the computer for a moment and brought out a toy train for him to play with. Then he started bringing me toys one after another. When I turned him away, saying, "Mommy has to work," he cried out, "No!" This is pandemonium, I thought.

    I managed to work while my son was napping or watching TV, using the half-day paid leave system, but this was not efficient.

    I was relieved to find out that my son had not had any contact with the person who tested positive for the virus, but the anxiety of the children and parents who were affected by the situation must have been considerable. I was deeply grateful to the facility for notifying guardians of the situation in detail and handling the matter day and night.

    The situation worsened on Jan. 20 as I received an urgent call from the elementary school my daughter attends. The school said, "We have found a positive case (of the coronavirus), and classes will be closed for a week from Jan. 21." The school simply stated, "We will contact you if a (PCR) test is necessary. Until then, please stay home."

    When I contacted the school several days later to ask when to expect any developments, the only answer I got was that the health center was under pressure and didn't know when a decision would be made. My daughter kept asking, "Am I going to get tested?" and "When does school start?"

    In the end, my daughter returned to school on Jan. 28. My son also started attending day care again after the 10-day closure. For the time being, daily life has returned to how it was before. However, the same awful situation could happen again at any time. My children have been forced to endure two years of self-restraint due to the pandemic, and their patience is nearing its limit.

    During the school closure, one of the topics that came up on the free messaging app Line among the mothers of my daughter's classmates was whether or not parents could go to work. In my case, I was instructed by my company to work from home until it was clear whether or not my daughter was a close contact, so I responded by doing interviews online and temporarily changing schedules. In some industries, there are companies that allow parents in such situations to come to work. One friend of mine whose job does not enable her to work from home, was at a complete loss.

    Once a person is infected or suspected to be infected, even if the number is small, schools and day care centers have no choice but to close until the results are known. The longer the delay in determining who is a close contact and the results of the tests, the more it will cut into children's daily lives and possibly interfere with the work of their parents.

    While we obviously need to prevent the spread of infections, I'm keenly aware that the time has come to think of more efficient ways to minimize the impact on people's social lives.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Noguchi, Osaka City News Department)

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