This week’s post features an e-mail interview with Hirokazu Yokota, a government officer at Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). At MEXT, he has tackled such missions as increasing the number of public school teachers, encouraging Community School initiatives, promoting special needs education, and spearheading a ministerial reform. Recently, he published an article on school leadership in Japan in Journal of Educational Administration. The post shares his own views and does not necessarily represent the views of MEXT. This post is the second in a series launched by IEN last week with a post from Chile. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.
1. What’s happening with you and your family?
Hirokazu Yokota: I was taking a paternity leave from October 1 of 2019 to April 7 in order to take care of my second child (who has just turned one year last week!). As you might know, being a stay-at-home dad is as hard a job as working for the government. Although I enjoyed such things as playing with my son, cooking lunch for my wife and helping my four-year-old daughter with reading and writing letters, I sometimes needed a pastime. That’s why once a week, I was looking forward to having lunch with my old friends – just to chat and do a little catch-up. That has completely changed over the past three months. During weekdays, I refrained from going outside – to avoid getting infected and to make sure that my son and I did not spread it if we had it. What was especially concerning was my son had been sick early in March for nearly two weeks – but his fever did not go as high as the threshold of 37.5 Celsius. Now he is doing fine and has finished the phase-in at a nursery school which started on April 1, but I’m kind of feeling guilty about not being able to continue my paternity leave despite this COVID-19 outbreak.
“What is extremely challenging is that education is the act of human interaction, and now we must stay away from that”
2. What’s happening with education/learning in your community?
HY: Although almost all of the public elementary, junior high, and high schools in Japan have been closing after March 2, this does not apply to nursery schools. Therefore, my daughter was going to her nursery as usual, although I kept her at home for a week or so at the beginning of March. Because the nursery refrained from taking children outside, my daughter seemed to feel stressed, so I oftentimes could not help going to the playground, while practicing social distancing (which, I admit, is very difficult for kids).
HY: Nationally, as of March 24th, MEXT announced new guidelines for the reopening of schools after spring break (e.g. necessary measures for local governments to implement in order to prevent further spread of the COVID-19) and for temporary closures in the new school term (e.g. how to determine whether the school should be closed on a temporary basis, in case of an infection of children, students or teachers. At that time, this policy decision was reasonable given the relatively slow rise of confirmed cases in Japan, although MEXT revised the latter guideline on April 1 to suggest how to determine the temporary closure based on the overall situation in the community, even if there are no infected people in the school. However, due to the recent rapid increase of confirmed cases, the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency, which took effect from April 8 to May 7. At first this measure had been targeted at seven prefectures (mostly metropolitan areas), but later was expanded to all the forty-seven prefectures on April 16. Accordingly, on April 10, MEXT issued a notification on the instruction to students who cannot go to schools owing to the temporary closure. In this notice, MEXT asked Boards of Education to ensure that schools couple instruction and assessment by teachers with appropriate learning opportunities at home (based on the instructional plan devised by schools), while taking into account the current status of infection in each area. Additionally, it mentions that after schools open, they should assess learning that occurred at home during the temporary closure and implement measures to supplement the lost learning opportunities. Although schools are supposed to make maximum efforts to ensure learning and to reteach material that should have been learned at home during the closure, schools do not have to cover the same content again if and only if assessments confirm that students fully understand the material (NOTE: this measure is an exception rather than a rule).
3. What do you/your community need help with?
HY: Before the COVID-19 outbreak, our ministry published an ambitious policy package to ensure every student in elementary and junior high schools will have access to an ICT device at school by the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023. The official document in Japanese is here, and English version is here (p23-24) (you might find this article by the Japan Times helpful). Moreover, given the importance of ICT as a tool to ensure student learning during such temporary closure, on April7, the aforementioned policy package was revised so that MEXT can subsidize ICT devices in order for each student to have an access at the end of THIS YEAR (FY2020, not 2023) (p12 here, although it’s in Japanese). Now is the time to fully expand the potential of ICT devices, but when it comes to implementation, there are so many issues to be resolved – from teachers’ capacity to use ICT devices, internet access at home, and from security concerns to measures for tracking student progress. What is extremely challenging is that education is the act of human interaction, and now we must stay away from that. However, at the same time, I’m hopeful that after this pandemic is over, we can find a proper balance between face-to-face teaching and remote learning, and accordingly the desirable roles of teachers/schools in this era.
In this period of turbulence and uncertainty, we, regardless of our own positions, have to collaborate with each other to protect ourselves, our family, our community, and our society
4. What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?
HY: Thanks to the great efforts of my colleagues, our ministry opened a new web portal (in Japanese), to support children’s learning during this temporary closure – just ONE DAY after we asked schools to temporarily close. This website includes such contents as textbooks of each subject, “how to make masks on your own,” “museums at home,” and “my sports menu.” Of course, private companies are working on providing inspiring contents for children – such as NHK for school and Katariba online. Personally, as a father, I found textbooks with intriguing pictures and sounds useful as a tool to help my daughter learn Japanese, math and English.
5. What have you found most inspiring?
HY: In this period of turbulence and uncertainty, we, regardless of our own positions, have to collaborate with each other to protect ourselves, our family, our community, and our society. But I’m deeply encouraged by, and grateful for, the fact that people around the world are combating, to the best of their ability, this unprecedented predicament. It was not until what we take for granted was taken away that it brought home to me that I, and we, are protected by our society. Since I restarted my journey of public service, we as government officers also work from home every two days in order to considerably reduce contacts with other people. Of course, you can easily imagine that while we have far more tasks than usual due to the coronavirus outbreak, we cannot maintain the same productivity as when we stay at the office every day. This reality becomes even harsher when our nursery schools ask parents who work from home to refrain from sending their children – that is exactly the case with me. It’s like going through a long tunnel, just trying to manage two extremely important, but sometimes conflicting, missions – working for the government and being a father of two at the same time. But I know what keeps me going forward in such a difficult time – my sincere desire to dedicate myself to helping those who are affected by COVID-19!
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