TOKYO — A week after Japan closed its schools in an attempt to check the spread of coronavirus, Yuko Hashimoto is still struggling to figure out child care for her three children.
So on Thursday, the kids took the train across Tokyo to her mother’s house, a 90-minute journey each way. On Monday and Tuesday, Hashimoto left them lunch. The children — a 13-year-old boy and two daughters, 11 and 9 — stayed home alone.
She’s most worried about her son, whose week-long swim camp during spring break has already been canceled.
“He has nothing to do except play with his phone,” she said. “He plays games all the time, and that just makes me angry at him. If this goes on for a month, that’s what I stress about the most.”
This one parent’s anxiety is echoed in millions of variations in places such as Italy and Iran, where schools also have been shut to try to curb the spread of the virus. The Hashimoto family is also a potential peek into what’s ahead for many in the United States if school closures expand beyond the current few, concentrated so far in the Seattle area.
The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO estimated Wednesday that more than 290 million students — from prekindergarten to 12th grade — have had their education disrupted by the school closures linked to the coronavirus.
In Japan, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shuttered nearly 38,000 schools, disrupting the education of nearly 14 million children and leaving millions of working parents scrambling.
The 'bad guy' factor
Hashimoto’s friend, Miki, works in a children’s hospital three days a week. Miki’s husband, a consultant, is working from home to look after their three children.
Miki is most worried about her 11-year-old daughter Manoka, who is studying for fiercely competitive school entry exams. Not only is school canceled, so are her after-school cram classes: four hours a night, three days a week.
“It’s so difficult. If I’m home I can check if she is doing her homework, but my husband can’t be angry with his daughter,” said Miki, who asked that her family name not to be published for privacy reasons.
“When she starts crying or arguing, [my husband] doesn’t want to be the bad guy, and tells her just to finish what she is doing, and then have a snack or watch some TV.”
“I’m the one who has to be the bad guy,” she said, “and be angry with both of them.”
Miki said working from home has been a real eye-opener for her husband on the routines of domestic life. One discovery: The children’s rooms get messy, and they need to be told to tidy up.
“At first he was quite enjoying the situation, but now he seems to be very tired,” she said. “He’s getting irritated with the kids fighting each other.”
Data questions school closures
Abe’s snap decision didn’t only catch parents and schools off guard. It came as a surprise to his own education ministry and the government’s medical experts.
Hiroyuki Noda, a senior official at a government agency responsible for implementing measures against infectious diseases, acknowledged there is “no scientific evidence” on what would be most effective in curbing the spread of the new coronavirus among children.
That could be because children are more resistant to catching the virus or are becoming infected but not showing symptoms, or simply because relatively few children have come into contact with it.
Yet it is better, Noda noted, to be safe than sorry.
“The government’s priority,” he said, “is to protect the safety of children.”
Still, with parents commuting to work in packed subway cars, many experts are asking if mass school closures should really be the priority right now. There has been a storm of criticism of Abe’s decision.
The move has also brought its share of contradictions.
Mika’s son Kota still plays soccer and baseball with friends. Her youngest daughter Konoha goes to the park with friends, which is crowded with people. Her soccer has been canceled, but an after-school running club has restarted after parents complained their kids needed exercise.
Schoolwork in the office
Abe exempted kindergartens and day-care centers from the closures to provide some relief for working parents.
But Yuji Suehisa says he’s reluctant to send his 9-year-old son Haruma to his local day-care center. “It’s not that spacious,” he said, and kids could be at higher risk of illness from tumbling around together at play.
Instead, Suehisa brought his son to work this week.
He’s lucky. His employer, Pasona, a recruitment and staffing agency, has converted a senior manager’s office into an improvised nursery, with a playmat and toys for preschoolers and space at a meeting table for Haruma to study alongside his father.
“I did some homework, played a [video] game, read a book and studied again,” the boy said, as he practiced writing Japan’s kanji script in a notebook. “I’m enjoying myself, but I miss my friends.”
In the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo, the education board has left schools open as impromptu day-care centers for parents.
That created an eerie scene at Kitaurawa Elementary School: a few children wearing medical face masks, sitting at a safe distance from one another, studying by themselves in complete silence. The windows were wide open for ventilation.
The principal, Satoshi Masuko, said there are just 30 to 40 children out of a total enrollment of 703 attending this week. Parents have to bring in materials to keep the children busy. It would be unfair to others, the school staff decided, if the school continued to teach.
But every so often, a teacher will suggest to a small group of children they get up and collect some books from the library, go to the television room to watch an educational program — or just stretch their legs with a stroll down the hall.
Seven-year-old Akane Karasawa insists she is “fine” with the arrangements. She loves reading books anyway. “We are trying not to get infected,” she said simply.
'We can't take a risk'
In Funabashi, west of Tokyo, Megumi Takahashi has had to take her 4-year-old son Kaname to a babysitter after his kindergarten closed.
She and her husband both work in elderly care centers and can’t take time off easily. Her biggest concern: How long will this situation last?
“I am worried as much about my son missing kindergarten as I am about the virus,” she said. “Children need to do exercise, play outside.”
She ponders, too, whether the government should have devoted more attention to boosting coronavirus protections for the elderly in Japan, which has the world’s largest proportion of people above 65 years old.
“I wonder if there are other things that should have been done first, rather than closing schools,” she said.
Still, one online opinion poll this week showed slightly more than half of respondents supported the schools’ closure. Despite her struggle to find child care, Hashimoto is one of them.
“Our kids are our treasure,” she said. “We can’t take a risk.”