Late at night on February 27, my colleagues and I received an email from the deputy headmaster at the school where we teach announcing that there would be an emergency faculty meeting the next morning.
When we gathered on Friday morning, our headmaster informed us that we would be supporting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's request to close the school from March 2 as a measure to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Closing ceremonies for the school year would be held the next day and more details would be discussed after school. Jaws dropped to the floor.
When the news was announced to the students at the morning assembly, many children cheered with delight, but were reminded of the reason behind the closure.
I have to admit that I did not expect Abe's request to be met with such opposition elsewhere. On the news, government officials, health care experts, educators and parents criticized his decision. Abe admitted he had made his decision before consulting health care experts, saying it needed to be done as quickly as possible. On social media, I noticed many people calling this ridiculous and unnecessary.
But I prefer to look at his decision with a more positive view. Since there is a lot that we do not know about COVID-19 and how to control it, why not be a little more supportive about a decision which involves the health and welfare of our children? Why do some people feel that we have to wait until there is an outbreak at a school or for cases involving children to happen before we take action?
I understand the hardships and challenges that working parents, especially single-parent families, face during school closures. March is a busy month in Japan as it is the end of the fiscal year and it is a difficult time to be absent.
But I think what needs to change is the attitude of many workplaces here. Bosses and colleagues need to be more understanding, cooperative and supportive of one another, especially during times of emergency or illness.
I think in the efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we have seen some changes which I hope will bring about positive results throughout Japan. For example, many employees were given the chance to work from home and some companies allowed their employees to change their working hours to avoid crowded trains.
On an NHK World-Japan's Newsline broadcast, Abe said that his government would fully support opening more day care programs during the spring holidays and setting up financial assistance programs to help parents who are kept from going to work.
Another complaint I heard was how an early end to the school year might give children too much free time. I know the abrupt end made finishing the necessary curriculum assessments a bit more difficult. However, there are many schools that are using this time to try new learning techniques. Some schools are doing online learning programs or independent learning projects.
I'm hoping that my students are learning a lot more about good health habits simply by watching the news. One is becoming quite the artist as he seems to enjoy drawing the coronavirus in various designs.
One of the main reasons why I support the decision to close the schools is to ease the minds of our children. The majority of my students commute to school by train or bus. Some of them travel as long as 90 minutes to come to school. Although my school is in Yokohama, many students commute on crowded trains from Tokyo. I'm sure that parents are particularly worried now if their child has to ride on a crowded train.
Like many schools in Japan, we have already dealt with class closures when there were outbreaks of influenza.
Despite reminding the children to practice good health habits, we still have children who vomit, pick their nose, hold hands with their best friends and sneeze into the air. They eat and chat and play together. When children don't feel well, they go to the health office. You can see the look of relief on a child's face when their parent arrives to take them home if they are sick.
Right now, many children are nervous about getting sick because they are afraid of how they would be treated by their classmates if they were diagnosed with COVID-19. During this time of anxiety and uncertainty, I think it helps put the children's minds at ease to be with family at home.
While the children are at school, we teachers make sure all children are taken care of, but I'm glad that I've been given a chance to take care of myself too.
I hope that the impact of Abe's decision produces positive results. I strongly believe that we all need to work together to combat this virus.
Kim Takeda has been a teacher for 40 years and is currently teaching English for Global Communication at a private elementary school in Yokohama.