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Education

Japan's students left behind as world embraces online classes

Red tape ensnares schools trying to adapt to new coronavirus restrictions

An elementary school student studies at home using online videos from a tutoring service. (Photo by Shiho Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Japan's primary and secondary students are at risk of falling behind the rest of the world as the country's wheels of bureaucracy have been slow to adapt to restrictions brought about by the coronavirus outbreak.

While advanced democracies across the world have thrown resources at public schools to ensure students are able to take lessons at home while under lockdown, just a handful of Japanese schools will roll out online classes despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declaring a state of emergency on April 7, which was extended last week.

"We generally do not approve credit for lessons taken solely online," said an official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Most schools had also been closed for at least a month starting March 2, though some reopened this month before the state of emergency was announced.

Although calls to institute online classes have gained momentum amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, Japan's rigid academic standards have prevented local governments from facilitating at-home learning.

For brick-and-mortar high schools, online classes are required to provide the same educational benefit as face-to-face learning. Even under those strictures, online classes cannot account for half of the credits gained from coursework. Virtual classes must be later supplemented by face-to-face lessons.

The only exceptions to the rule are high schools specifically designated for distance learning.

As a result, only 5% of local government bodies in Japan will launch online classes for public schools that have shut down, the education ministry said Tuesday.

In the 13 "special alert prefectures" where extra measures are needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, only Tokyo and four other prefectures said they plan to implement Zoom-style classes in public high schools when asked by Nikkei.

Just one prefecture, Gifu, will immediately provide online learning throughout every area under its jurisdiction.

There have been calls for online learning from education and business circles before the coronavirus pandemic struck. The education ministry responded by unveiling a plan to distribute tablets and laptops to schools, but it still prioritizes lessons where all students are gathered together in a physical class.

"Ultra-egalitarian principles that stress the same education under the same environment are hindering the spread of distance learning," said Tatsuya Horita, professor of educational technology at Tohoku University. "Educators should start by doing what they can, such as assigning homework on the school's home pages."

Such resistance to online education contrasts sharply with attitudes outside of Japan. In the U.S., internet classes are often counted toward school credit. France does not require in-person lessons, and Great Britain delegates decisions over class hours to schools.

In Asia, Singapore launched online lessons in April. South Korea started internet classes for students in the final year of high school and middle school on April 9. The plan is to expand that option to elementary schools as well, with the goal of targeting 5.4 million students.

Online education in South Korea: A teacher gives class at a school in Seoul, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.   © Reuters

Meanwhile, Japanese students lacking a proper learning environment have no choice but to wait for schools to reopen. Those include high school seniors who will have to take college entrance exams next year.

"I don't know if school will reopen in May," said a woman whose son is a senior at a high school in Aichi Prefecture. "If he's stuck at home, there will be a gap in the level of learning."

Her son, who is looking to attend a private university in Tokyo, started attending a test prep school this month. But because the school closed its doors on April 11, classes have been conducted through video lessons.

The student is an advocate of online classes. "It can be at a normal school or a cram school," he said. "I want them to create an environment that is close to face-to-face learning."

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda has said the timeframe for alternative pathways to colleges, such as teacher recommendations, should be delayed to fit the new circumstances.

"Students taking entrance exams should not be put at a disadvantage," Hagiuda said.

Online learning has stalled at the middle school and elementary school level as well. No such programs are planned or executed in any of Tokyo's 23 wards and in 12 prefectural capitals and large cities.

One Tokyo resident is desperate for schools to reverse course for the sake of his fifth-grade daughter.

"She can't focus on studying while at home because she keeps talking to me while I'm working from home," he said.

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