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Disadvantaged families fear Japan's school closures widening education gap

Jiji

The prolonged school closures caused by the COVID-19 epidemic have intensified concerns that inequities in education are growing.

While schools around the country are slowly reopening with the lifting of the nationwide state of emergency, worries are mounting because home-based study is affected by the environment students find themselves in.

Many education experts are especially concerned that children in poor and single-parent households are being compromised more than other children.

A 45-year-old single mother in Hachioji in western Tokyo said her eldest daughter’s junior high school left her education to the family.

In the roughly 2½ months from the time her school closed until it reopened with staggered attendance, the 14-year-old only received a bunch of handouts, drill sheets and textbooks for the school year.

“There was no instruction on how to proceed, and the teacher responsible for her did not call to check up on her progress,” the mother said.

The mother said she does not have enough time to watch over her because her younger daughter, 9, has an intellectual disability and goes to a special needs school.

Some parents make their children take online lessons with cram schools. This was not an option for her, however, because the school’s closure forced her to take time off from her part-time job, reducing her income.

Now she is worried the closure will have an adverse effect on the daughter’s preparations for the important high school entrance exams.

“Educational disparities have increased due to prolonged school closures,” said Takayuki Komiya, 42, head of a nonprofit organization in Hachioji that offers free tutoring to junior and senior high school students from economically struggling families.

According to Komiya, many of the students have two working parents or just one parent, meaning they are often left alone at home. Some share small rooms with siblings.

“They can’t study at home unless they are extremely motivated,” he said. “The effects of having no classes for three months are huge.”

To prepare for a possible second wave of coronavirus infections, the government is asking public schools to adopt online classes.

But a survey by the NPO found that many students had no devices other than smartphones for taking such lessons or accessing Wi-Fi at home.

The survey also said some students do not want their homes seen online by others, while students without their own rooms are worried their siblings will disturb their classes.

“It’s important to have a place outside the home to study,” Komiya said, adding that the school is a place where children can study on equal terms regardless of their household environment.

“I hope that online classes will be used only as a supplementary method and that children can go to school every day, even for a short time,” he added.

High school students hoping to enroll in university are also experiencing disadvantages because the school closures have reduced their preparation time for the all-important entrance examinations scheduled for early next year.

In this regard, education minister Koichi Hagiuda said Friday the government has started considering holding reviews of the dates and academic topics for next year’s university exams.

Hagiuda told a news conference that he had asked the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals on Thursday to hold a survey on pushing back the exam dates, narrowing down the topics for the tests and offering make-up exams.

The minister said he will announce the guidelines for holding the exams in June after examining the survey results and holding talks with high school and university representatives.

“Personally, I would like to give students more than enough time to prepare,” Hagiuda said. “I hope to draw up the guidelines swiftly, taking into account the true opinions of those in the classrooms.”

The minister also said that with many schools set to reopen in June, the government will not come to an immediate conclusion on a controversial proposal to move the start of Japan’s academic year to September from April.

“There is a need to keep many options under consideration,” he said, apparently mindful of the risk that a second coronavirus wave might trigger another set of long school closures.

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