When Mayumi Iijima heard that schools across Japan would close over the new coronavirus outbreak, leaving her to juggle her job and two small children, her first reaction was horror.
“I just said ‘no, no, no, no. What are we supposed to do?'” the 40-year-old, who works in human resources in Tokyo says.
Like parents in countries from Italy to Iran, Iijima is struggling to find ways to entertain and educate her children during school closures that the U.N. says have disrupted education for more than 290 million students worldwide.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the nation and dismayed parents countrywide with his call for schools to close through the spring holiday, which ends around early April. Nurseries and after-school clubs can stay open, but Iijima’s 9-year-old son Torao and 8-year-old daughter Koto are both affected.
Iijima’s husband has little flexibility at work, but her company Jinjibu has allowed her to bring her children in, setting aside a conference room for them to stay in and encouraging other staff to help out.
“What we as a business could do was not to isolate working mothers,” says spokeswoman Junko Sato.
“When they work, they can focus on working, and the rest of our staff will care for the children,” she says.
Iijima is grateful, but says the situation is still far from ideal.
“We brought study materials for children. They also like crafts,” she says. But she adds, “I hope school will resume. I’m worried about their studies.”
Less stress for the kids?
In Hong Kong, schools have been shut since early February, with the closure now set to last until after Easter.
Many teachers are turning to conference call applications to interact with students, but that requires good Wi-Fi access and computer literacy.
Primary school teacher Billy Yeung works at a school where many students come from low-income families and parents are often unsure how to download documents.
“Some parents told me they don’t have Wi-Fi at home,” he says. “One told me that they have used up their mobile data by downloading teaching materials.”
Elsa Wong, a single working mother, whose employer has required staff to work from home, is trying to home-school her 11-year-old son Rick, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Wong says she has enjoyed seeing her son’s progress up close and says he has generally been more relaxed at home. But going it alone has been tough.
“Sometimes I have been so physically exhausted or mentally drained, I really couldn’t reason with him,” she says.
For some children in Hong Kong’s highly competitive system, the closures come as a relief.
“I feel like it is easier to concentrate and it’s less stressful,” says 14-year-old Leo, who normally has nine lessons a day, but now has only two 45-minute sessions via a video-chat app.
Ditching screen-time rules
In South Korea, schools are closed at least through March 23, and archivist Han Ji-hee is relying on her husband, mother and niece to watch her two sons.
“I really hate it,” says Han, who lives in Suwon, south of Seoul. “The kids are really bored — they can’t go outside to the playground or hang out with their friends, so they have nothing to do. They just end up watching TV and playing with their phones all day, but it’s not like I can be there.”
The closures are not universal. In Singapore, the government has so far declined to shutter schools, arguing it would “disrupt many lives.” The education ministry says “Even if all students stay at home, there is no guarantee against infection.”
Back in Tokyo, popular areas like Harajuku and Shibuya are still packed with teenagers, with younger children flocking to playgrounds.
“My mother sits next to me all morning so I have no choice but to do homework,” one 9-year-old boy says as he played on a seesaw at a park. “But the one good thing is that I can play Nintendo Switch for ages,” he says, adding that his family’s usual 45-minute rule has been scrapped.
“Now I can play as long as I like!”
More screen-time can be educational as well as fun
Looking for English-language content for kids in Japan? Here are few ideas that don’t involve Nintendo or YouTube.
SkyPerfecTV is offering Disney Channel and Disney Jr. for free until March 31 as well as National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild documentaries until March 22.
The Sony Global Math Challenge 2020 isn’t until later this year, but there’s nothing to stop kids signing up now. It’s free and offers access to a number of online mathematical puzzles to practice on before the competition.
Studycat, an app to teach kids English, Chinese, Spanish, French or German is offering a month’s free subscription to those affected by school closures.
Netflix has a 30-day free trial, so if you haven’t joined, now’s a good time, and there are plenty of acclaimed English-language options, including “Carmen Sandiego,” an animation about a thief who returns cultural items to rightful owners, and “The Who Was? Show,” a comedy series with a teen cast, covering historical figures and history. For older kids, “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts,” is inclusive, LGBTQ-positive and has a great soundtrack; while “Bill Nye Saves the World” introduces science in the fun, flashy way Nye is famous for.