Special Needs Education in Japan During the Coronavirus

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Manabi san’s computer classroom (photo provided by her).

Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Alumna. Contact: nagaijuli@gmail.com

Fieldsite: Manabi san*, my main participant, lives and works in Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture. I am based in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture.

*Name has been changed.

Schools in Japan have struggled with moving classes online. Out of the OECD countries, Japan ranks the lowest in utilizing technology for schoolwork outside of the classroom. Many schools simply weren’t prepared and did not have the technology to quickly begin online education [1]. Despite the struggles, a number of elementary, middle, and high schools, [2], as well as universities [3], have implemented online classes. Recently, many prefectures have lifted their state of emergency and schools are reopening. Some university students report being happy to go to classes on campus again. But other universities remain closed. A mother in Osaka Sayama told me that her son’s university in Tokyo has yet to reopen. He is currently living at home, taking university classes in his pyjamas.

Schools for students with special needs face even more challenges in providing education during the Covid-19 pandemic. I interviewed Manabi san, a computer and cooking teacher at a high school for special needs students. Most of the students at Manabi san’s high school have mental disabilities or illnesses that make it difficult for them to attend school. Some have physical disabilities, such as hearing impairments. However, the school is not accessible to people with certain physical disabilities. For instance, the school does not have an elevator, making it impossible for students who cannot climb stairs to attend. Overall, the school is intended more for students who cannot attend typical schools due to intellectual disabilities and mental health issues.

The school used to be very small, with only 20-30 students. In recent years, the number of parents who wish to send their children to school has increased greatly. There are so many applicants that the school cannot take them all. Manabi san explained to me that there is little government or public school support for students who cannot attend school due to intellectual disabilities and mental health issues. Most accommodations in public schools are for students with physical disabilities. Thus, parents are forced to rely on private special needs schools. High school is not mandatory in Japan, but many parents of special needs students wish to see them graduate. They also want their children to spend time around peers of the same age.

Manabi san’s school has been closed since March. She was paid her usual salary during the months the school was closed. Manabi san is currently preparing for the reopening of the school in June. The school never attempted online or other styles of distance education. Manabi san told me that the principal said online education would be impossible for the school. The students who attend simply aren’t the type who would be able to learn and study on their own. As it is, they receive very little homework and aren’t expected to study much outside of the classroom.

Manabi san is worried about how reopening the school will go. Many schools that are reopening are focused on preventing students and staff members from being infected with the coronavirus [4]. Manabi san’s school, is, of course, working to prevent infections on their campus. But they also have to worry about how their students will handle the transition back to school. Many of them are frequently absent during normal times. Manabi san worries that after not coming for three months, they won’t come at all. Furthermore, many students struggle greatly with participating in class and socializing. Manabi san told me that she has never heard some of her students’ voices. Since they have been at home for so long, they may struggle even more with the challenges of attending school.

The computer class Manabi san teaches is expected to return to fairly close to normal. She speculates that the school’s computers might be cleaned more often, or that class sizes may be made smaller. But she can expect to teach her computer class fairly normally, albeit in a mask. Her cooking class is a completely different story. The students are not allowed to cook together due to the fear of infection. Before the coronavirus, the class was already difficult to teach. The school does not have a special cooking classroom. Rather, Manabi san was forced to teach cooking in a regular classroom. She would lay down plastic sheets to keep the classroom clean and use portable cooking equipment. Now, she is having difficulty thinking of what to occupy her students with for the 3-hour long class. One of her ideas is having students practice cutting techniques using clay and a plastic knife. Another is to teach them about foods in different countries and cultures.

Although not online, the school is adjusting to life during a pandemic. Manabi san’s job was difficult to begin with. Her computer classroom is on the 8th floor of a building without an elevator. Teaching special needs students is not easy. She told me that she has to think of her students as “being elementary schoolers” because if she “thought of them as high schoolers, she would get angry with them.” For now, the coronavirus situation is stable enough to resume school. But with the threat of a second wave in the fall or winter, many questions remain. Will the school have to close for months again? Will the students simply go without an education for months again if there is a closure? Although Covid-19 has posed difficulties for many schools, special education schools face a unique set of challenges. The students at Manabi san’s school could not participate in any distance learning measures that were implemented to keep students learning while at home. When adapting to new ways of life during this crisis, it is important to make sure that the problems people with disabilities and/or illnesses face are not exacerbated. Our new ways of living need to be accessible to everyone, especially those who were frequently left out before the pandemic.

References

[1] In era of COVID-19, a shift to digital forms of teaching in Japan
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/04/21/national/traditional-to-digital-teaching-coronavirus/#.XtT0pJ4zab8

[2] 端末争奪戦や通信環境 オンライン授業に高いハードルhttps://www.sankei.com/life/news/200531/lif2005310041-n2.html

[3] オンライン授業「導入・検討」大学の9割超 現場の教員に負担もhttps://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20200519/k10012436611000.html

[4] 「万全の感染予防で…」県内の大学も対面授業再開の動きhttps://www.fnn.jp/articles/-/48114