At a press conference on 13th of April, amid a rapid growth of COVID-19 infections in the Osaka area, prefectural governor Yoshimura announced new measures to fight the pandemic.
These included a request for schools to stop club activities and for universities to suspend face to face classes and move to online classes.
Whilst for now this is only in the Osaka, area it marks a major break from the policy of the Education Ministry which had been pushing universities to teach at least 70% of classes online – with even teachers with pre-existing conditions (making them more vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus) being pressured into teaching face-to-face.
The reversal was based on the failure of the existing policies of early closing of drinking/dining establishments to halt the spread. The rapid spread of the virus threatens to collapse the local health care system with over 92% of beds now full.
The explosion of infections in the Kansai area is linked to the spread of new variants, which account for the majority of new cases.
The UK variant (the most common), is, according to the Japanese National Institute for Infectious Diseases, 43 to 90% more infectious than the previous strains of the virus.
In addition, these strains are infecting more young people, and it appears that contact tracing is showing clusters appearing at universities.
On April 5th, the Mainichi Shinbun quoted a senior Osaka Prefectural Government official as saying,
“Infections are spreading at workplaces and universities, and there are many people whose transmission routes are unknown. (Restrictions) on dining establishments alone won’t stem the spread.”
The number of university students in Osaka Prefecture alone is in the hundreds of thousands. Many of them travel across prefectural boundaries in order to take classes.
If they felt it safe, most university teachers would much rather be back in the classroom teaching face-to-face.
However, in the present environment, it is clear that it is impossible to keep universities safe, either for workers in universities, students, or their families.
There are obviously problems with remote teaching, with students feeling isolation and increased instances of psychological problems.
It is important universities increase support for psychological services and look at ways which the isolation can be broken down without spreading infections.
Some students may need financial support with laptops or tablets so they can participate in online classes.
Universities could easily provide this from the money saved in faculty travel expenses.
The prefectural government measure is only a request, with no legal standing.
The experts did offer the alternative that if this was “difficult” they could reduce the size of face-to-face classes instead.
Since most universities conducted classes online at some time last year, it is hard to see why this would be difficult now.
However, it is possible that the administration in some universities may resist the request.
The General Union calls on all universities to respect the request and will support its members and other university workers who wish to teach online.