More than a week has passed since a state of emergency was declared on April 7 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, not everyone seems to be staying home. Data announced by the government showed that the number of people around main stations in the seven designated hot-spot prefectures dropped 40 to 60 percent on Monday compared to average figures in the month from mid-January. This means some people are still commuting to work because of a lack of a telework environment at home or a failure on the part of their companies to change their traditional way of operating, such as a heavy reliance on paper documents and the use of traditional stamps, known as hanko, for their approval. This is creating a major divide among companies between those that can sustain their business online and those that cannot.
The nation’s schools are also increasingly being pressured to go digital as soon as possible. Since most schools in the seven designated prefectures are closed until May 6, the gap between private and public schools has become more evident. While many private schools started to offer online learning programs this month, public schools lag far behind. Moreover, if schools in other areas remain open, a divide will develop between them and those that are closed. The government should provide financial as well as technical support to schools nationwide to help them go digital.
Private schools began to prepare online education platforms at the end of February when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly requested that all elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan close from March 2. Many private schools now offer educational materials such as videos and PowerPoint presentations, upload assignments and conduct teacher-student communication online.
The story is different when it comes to public schools. Because each student’s situation is different in terms of household income and access to the internet, public schools and their municipal education boards are not asking parents to buy computers so their kids can learn online. A lack of IT-savvy teachers is another hurdle as this makes if difficult to create adequate online educational materials. Compared to other advanced nations, Japan in general has been slow to create an environment for online education.
The French government closed all schools in mid-March. The government acted swiftly and started offering education programs for each grade online in the following week via the education ministry’s National Center for Distance Education. The online program can also be viewed via a TV channel, so computers aren’t necessary. The important thing is that the central government is taking initiatives to provide nationally standardized online materials.
In the United States, YouTube and Google Classroom, an online educational tool developed jointly by Google and education experts, are widely used at public schools for online learning during school closures that began in March.
In a rare move, Japan’s education ministry has finally notified its decision to the education boards across Japan that academic work done under certain conditions at home can be accepted and reflected in academic results. It also said that schools do not have to teach the same content done at home in classes once schools restart. It’s good that students’ work at home will be reflected academically, but this also means missed classes may not be taught by teachers. Instead, students will have to make up the classes themselves while schools are closed.
Parents in Japan already have enough to worry about, such as the impact of school closures on their children’s physical and mental health. They may also be facing a decline in income because of the crisis. If they also have to help their children study, their burden will be even greater.
The government should not leave essential educational matters with local governments, schools and parents. Without the central government’s help, disparities between private and public schools, as well as among different regions, will only become bigger. If it is not possible to provide a PC for every student at public schools due to financial and time constraints, schools should be allowed to utilize their existing facilities, such as opening up computer rooms for students who don’t have online access at home.
If the pandemic persists for a long time, onsite schooling may not be available for weeks or months. Since opportunities to acquire education should be equally given to every child, a strong initiative on the part of the central government to shift the country’s education is needed.
The Japan Times Editorial Board