In order to understand the impact of Covid-19 on our friends and the schools in Japan, we reached out to current ALTs from Minnesota to get their observations. As usual, every situation is different and things can vary from prefecture to prefecture. Here is the third letter with a downloadable link of the PDF at the bottom:
I work as an ALT north of Sendai. I service three schools, one middle school, two elementary schools.
These have indeed been strange times.
First of all, I am doing well, no issues to report besides the lack of toilet paper and masks in the stores. Life here continues as normal though with more care taken to avoid crowds and close contact with others.
A bit of background on the response to the virus here. The first major outbreak and subsequent closure happened in Hokkaido. As the virus was spreading through the schools, the prefectural and local boards of education decided to close all schools until the new school year (April). As the virus continued to spread throughout different prefectures, one by one, local boards and prefectural boards began closing schools for quarantine.
Shortly after these initial closures, the prime minister urged all prefectures to close schools until the new school year. After this announcement, each prefectural board of education held a meeting to decide on their response. Most if not all prefectures decided to close schools effective immediately until the new school year in April. While this was a very quick and necessary response, it left the whole of Japan in a difficult situation. First, there are several VERY important tests at the end of the school year. Second, there are also many ceremonies that schools typically hold for students, staff, and parents. As such, the prefectural board of education in Miyagi decided that all schools must close, but it was up to the local boards to decide on testing, ceremonies, and staff duties.
In my case, my town’s board of education acted quickly. 24hrs after the prime minister urged schools to close, our students were out of the door. It was decided that the main tests will still take place with safeguards in place to help prevent the spread of the virus. It was also decided that graduation ceremonies would be held with modifications and safeguards as well. The modifications to graduation ceremonies were as follows;
- -Attendees are limited to parents only.
- -Each attendee must wear a mask that will be distributed to them at the entrance.
- -Gatherings of students and parents must be held in separate rooms to prevent large groups from forming.
- -Staff must also wear masks.
- -No physical contact (handshakes and high-fives)
- -Ceremonies are to be shortened wherever possible and the students must leave directly after the ceremony.
Other ceremonies were also modified. Most ceremonies and celebrations that were not critical to the students were canceled. Those that were held were either recorded and televised, held in classrooms with HR teachers, or live broadcasted in the schools themselves.
As for duties as an ALT during this time, my board of education decided to let support staff continue to work alongside the teachers at each school, meaning I have duty unless told otherwise by either the schools or my supervisor. During this time, I have had to work at each of my schools in addition to the board of education. Mainly, my duties have been limited to just preparing for the next school year as the English curriculum is changing. Many days I have also helped the staff with many different things such as cleaning, preparing for graduation, making signs and posters, and studying Japanese. Much to all of our dismay, there has been no school lunch so it is on each of the staff members to bring their own.
During this time, ALTs are allowed to take vacation to self quarantine, but are asked not to go abroad unless it is for emergency reasons, and are advised to stay in their local town/city. In Miyagi, boards are not allowed to force unpaid leave due to the virus. Some boards have even allowed ALTs to return early, breaking contract due to emergency situations concerning the virus. In a reverse of that situation, ALTs who are finishing their contracts in April (early departure ALTs) are being given extensions on their contracts so that they may remain in the country until it is safe to return to their own country. The one month grace period for the airline ticket that is generally given at the end of an ALT’s contract is also being extended due to this troubling situation. For most other questions about time off, pay, or other scheduling concerns, the prefectural board has asked each of the local boards to treat the ALTs and Japanese staff equally when making decisions.
In the event that one begins to have symptoms that are similar to corona (high fever, dry cough, etc) they are required to go directly to the hospitals designated by the prefectures to be tested. In the event that one gets the virus, the boards of education will decide on scheduling, duty, time off, sick leave, etc. Even after being released, it is advised that one quarantines as well.
It has been a really interesting and sad close to the school year. The students are pretty upset about missing the celebrations and ceremonies that most students get to experience at the end of the year. They have stayed strong through it all though, often doing ceremonies and speeches without any preparation or practice. In a way, even though we are separated by quarantine and distancing, it has brought all of the students and staff closer together as everyone has been trying their best to close the year in the best way possible. This has been one of the hardest years both for JETs and schools, but everyone is working hard to overcome this situation. It has been very uplifting to see everyone working together to make sure that everything is taken care of both for the students and staff.
I hope this answers some of your questions regarding the response to the virus here in Japan. As far as virus cases in Miyagi, we have only had one thus far, an it was a person returning from the cruise ship who was already required to quarantine.
As for supporting ALTs through all of this, the best thing I could ask for is to educate those around you. The unfortunate blame and hatred toward the Asian community across the world due to misinformation and panic is heartbreaking to see. Many forget that these communities experienced the hardships caused by the virus long before it was an issue in their respective places. I cannot speak for all ALTs but I would like to ask everyone to stay vigilant, follow local authorities orders, do not take risks, go to the hospital if you have any symptoms in common with corona, wash your hands, and most importantly, do not panic. Many of us ALTs are more concerned for our families in the states and other countries, than we are for our own health.
Thanks and best of luck,