No region of Japan has been hit harder by the outbreak of COVID-19 than Hokkaido. So far, the government has confirmed 98 cases on the northern island, while some experts speculate the actual number could be much higher. As of yet, it’s the only part of the country to declare a state of emergency, with officials urging locals to stay at home if possible.
There are a lot of non-Japanese English teachers living in Hokkaido, whether they’re assistant language teachers (ALTs) who are a part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, private dispatch companies or English-language conversation schools. I spoke with five ALTs across the prefecture about their lives in the time of coronavirus, both professionally and personally. Of the teachers I spoke to, four asked for anonymity as they weren’t cleared by their supervisors to speak to the media. They will be referred to using first-name pseudonyms.
‘I’d say the virus wasn’t really a concern until late January and early February in the time leading up to the Sapporo Snow Festival,” says “Alex.” “There was some speculation between the low snowfall and the coronavirus that it’d be canceled.”
Alex says that, for many ALTs and their Japanese coworkers, the coronavirus was something happening far away in the Chinese city of Wuhan. In the run-up to the Snow Festival, there was no immediate concern.
“To be honest I have never been really worried about this virus,” says Josh Ullrey, an ALT in the town of Toyokoro. “It’s spreading, but it’s just like the flu. The symptoms and what can happen to you were not all that worrisome to me.”
Based in an agricultural town, “Blair” saw the situation start to change on Feb. 21. “We had our winter meeting that weekend, so all of us converged on Furano. When a lot of people were traveling (there), that’s when we got the news that the two boys in Nakafurano had tested positive for coronavirus.”
Alex began to avoid going out unnecessarily around this time as news reports suggested the Snow Festival was responsible for a rise in infections. Also around this time, a lot of the ALTs started stocking up on canned food and supplies, just in case things went awry — a lesson learned from the Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake of 2018. However, the speed at which masks and toilet papers began flying of the shelves was still a surprise.
“I didn’t have any masks before they were bought out, so my coworkers were trying to pool their masks together,” says Blair. “The old women of the town had a mask-making day and I was gifted six washable masks.”
In the week that followed, Blair says ALTs kept in frequent contact with one another to try to figure out what was happening regarding their jobs, with confusion being the common thread. Then, on Feb. 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recommended the closure of all elementary, junior and senior high schools nationwide.
“I was working in the board of education, so my teachers were texting me and asking what was going on,” Blair recalls.
Many of the ALTs say the schools they work at weren’t initially certain as to whether or not they would follow the prime minister’s request, but that changed after Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki declared a state of emergency on Feb. 28. Most schools canceling classes as a result.
The declaration didn’t stop Japanese teachers and ALTs from having to come in, however. Blair says that Japanese co-workers indicated they planned to quarantine themselves at home on the weekend, but come into work as scheduled the following Monday.
Four of the ALTs interviewed for this story said they still have to go in to work despite having nothing to do, but acknowledge that this isn’t far off from what an average March is like anyway. Since the Japanese school year begins in April, March consists of two weeks of exams and two weeks of end-of-school holidays. One ALT in Sapporo, “Casey,” says they worry about this strategy of making teachers go to school, as ALTs in urban areas have to commute using public transportation. Casey fears catching the virus from public transit and spreading it to their coworkers, just because of the need to keep up appearances.
“The (schools) are trying to comply. For example, I have to report my temperature everyday to work,” Blair says. “But I have a cold. Not a bad one, but I have one. I thought it would be better to stay home but (the people at school) told me my temperature wasn’t high enough, so I still had to come in. Why did we even close school for a month?”
At Blair’s workplace, everyone is expected to wear masks, but other ALTs report that masks are still optional where they work.
“Our town is giving special time off for those that have to watch their kids,” Ullrey says. “So I have been home with my kids since this past Wednesday. It is great to have a town that really cares about families and their children.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case prefecture-wide.
“As we are all to attend work unless we take personal holidays or choose unpaid leave — even the Japanese teachers — this leaves teachers with young children between a rock and a hard place. There has been no compassion shown in that regard,” says “Dana,” an ALT in Sapporo.
As the ALTs tell it, as of this past week the English-teaching industry continues to carry on. In some cases, as Blair puts it, new wrinkles are in place to carry out the letter of the law if not the spirit. Dana says their school’s graduation ceremony went on without parents present, and it still felt relatively normal.
“With one exception. Almost immediately after the students had left for the day, our school was disinfected,” says Dana. “It went from noisy to silent save for the hissing spray of the teams working to clean the school.”