Today I’d like to address some of the things that have been on a lot of our minds, when coping with the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. I have personally seen some of the effects on decision-making on a practical level, of the huge accommodations that schools have had to make to make schools a safe environment, but also how Co-vid has upended a lot of student lives, or changed decision-making about school choices. For example, some students have given up their places in US or UK universities, and applied to local universities instead. The CSIS Japan Chair’s Debating Japan newsletter post has highlighted that Covid-19’s impacts have been exacerbated or widened the inequality or income gap in Japan. The pandemic has brought attention to the issue of child poverty in Japan.
Here are the points summarized from the newsletter below:
- During voluntary school closures in Japan this past spring, disadvantaged student populations struggled to receive food and other social services. Government data shows that in Japan in 2015, one in every seven children under 18 years of age were living in households that earned less than half the national median disposable income, putting them under the child poverty line. Many of these children rely on schools for access to nutritious meals.
While schools remained closed in Japan earlier this year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) received 18.9 billion yen (US$170.6 million) in emergency funding, some of which was used to reimburse school lunch fees to families. Several school districts had school lunches delivered to families, with the Osaka local government offering free school lunches to all of its public elementary and junior high school students from April possibly into fiscal year 2021 in order to alleviate the financial burden placed on households by Covid-19.
2. Disadvantaged students are disproportionately impacted, also seen in the school resources available to them. One in twenty Japanese children lack the amenities necessary for online learning such as a quiet study space, a computer, or textbooks. A survey by the education ministry in April 2020 showed how little Japanese public schools were able to adapt: only 5% of local governing bodies across the country planned online classes while schools were shut due to the pandemic. The digital divide between urban and rural areas and across socio-economic lines further complicated the transition to the online environment. (Note: Japan is the fourth worst performer on this indicator across the OECD, better only than Greece, Turkey and Mexico. Japan also lags significantly behind other OECD countries in its ability to effectively incorporate information communication technology (ICT) into school curriculum. )
3. Student access to financial support for higher education has been an issue. In 2017, about 39 percent of current university students had taken out loans and the number of student loans has tripled over the past 15 years. Many students pursuing higher education have been hit hard financially due to either their own loss of income or family members’ loss of income as a result of pandemic-related job losses.
Smartphone is set up in the classroom set up in the middle of the room allows students at home to join the lesson using the web conferencing app Zoom Photo credit: Nippon.com
What has been done so far
As for the government, MEXT is currently providing cash hand-outs of 200,000 yen to “those who face difficulties continuing their studies at their university or other educational institutions so that they do not abandon their studies.” The recession in Japan could damage the economic outlook for the less than one fifth of low-income students that make it to university. The affordability of higher education in Japan merits continued attention.
In a promising public-private partnership developed at the behest of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan’s top three mobile phone companies announced they will eliminate some additional charges for data plans for users aged 25 and under. In March 2020, Japanese tech giant Rakuten announced a partnership with MEXT under GIGA, or Global and Innovation Gateway for All, to support schools in installing high-speed Internet and provide students in need with laptops or tablets for accessing the web. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s stated intention to prioritize government digitization is promising in this context and education needs to be included in the administration’s agenda.
Over 100 universities in Japan have taken measures to financially support students impacted by Covid-19 through scholarships, grants, or loans, and some are providing financial assistance to students that need education-related items for online learning.
Experts warn of a possible resurgence in Covid-19 cases, which could exacerbate the challenges associated with providing meals for children. Nippon Foundation research shows that if childhood poverty in Japan is unaddressed, the economic costs could be severe. Covid-19 and future pandemics could compound these economic losses.
Other information and other thoughts
The pandemic has made it clear how digital services have become vital with WFH and online learning if our lives are to have any kind of continuity at all. Where education is concerned, online learning has clearly become more important now, and likely an accelerated trend bringing forward the future role of IT services. Read more about the Digital Divide here.
Schools remain open for now … during the current “soft lockdown” or declared state of emergency, and MEXT has declared that it is taking whatever measures necessary to ensure children’s learning as much as possible, without anyone being left behind. For more details, see the MEXT paper Education in Japan beyond the crisis of COVID-19 –Leave No One Behind
According to the paper, MEXT is doing what it can to ensure continuous learning, consistent curricular content, moving some of the content a few years into the future where necessary. The paper also states that,
“Since reopening, Japanese schools have taken measures such as staggering attendance, redesigning timetables, and shortening long vacations to provide students with access to education while giving their full attention to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Schools are also supporting students’ learning by offering supplementary instruction to children who have not yet fully retained the target content.”
According to MEXT research figures, During the period from June 1, a total of 11 students overall (5%) were reported as “in-school transmission”, of which there were 4 cases, whereas, more than half … 57% (137 out of 242 students), were “household transmission”, and in particular, for elementary school students, 70% (63 out of 90 students) were infected in the home context. A total of 242 out of 12 million students in 135,874 schools were reported to have been infected when schools began to fully reopen, to July 31.
Research by the Nippon Foundation shows that education inequality directly impacts national economic performance. Education policy needless to say figures importantly in the priority to revive the economy.
Would you tell us in the comments below, what your schools are doing to counter the spread of Covid, as well as how you as parents are coping with ensuring your children are not “left behind” by this pandemic? What else do you think the government and schools that your children attend could do to alleviate hardship?