Returning to school means changes are everywhere. It starts with the daily commute. Instead of a train and a packed bus, I decided to bike to work in the morning and afternoon. It’s one hour each way in the wet, sticky heat of Japanese summer only just getting started.
On the first day back, I brought a bunch of my cool biz attire and threw them in my teacher locker. When I get to work, I change out from the gross workout clothes to the nice button up and pants combo. I managed to do this new commute from Monday to Friday, but today I woke up with my knees demanding a break.
Luckily, on Saturdays there aren’t many people taking the trains in the morning to my work station in Chiba. People are usually going the other way towards Tokyo for fun and such. I walked from the station to the school. For some reason, today is blistering hot instead of humid. I am worried I have a sunburn across my eyes, leaving the mask part super pale in comparison.
The number one rule is, “Wear a mask!” The school provided two paper thin masks for every teacher at their desk. I bought and made cloth masks to use instead. I don’t want to kill the Earth anymore than I already do with take out food and whatever.
Wearing a mask every day shouldn’t in and of itself feel so strange to me. For over eight years I’ve worn a mask off and on, usually just in flu season to try and stay a little more cautious to not get sick. Wearing it every day for weeks and weeks on end? No, that’s a very different way of living there.
The cartilage on my nose hurts a bit. I don’t wear glasses, so this is a new kind of pain for me. I’ve worn heavy cloth masks all week for over nine hours at a time. I can’t complain much in the face of the medical workers who have to don huge plastic goggles on top of masks with sheets over their body and hair. I’m getting off easy with just the one place with a minor ache.
Other school rules are, “Don’t talk in groups!” and “Stay one desk between each student!” and “Always use the entrance with the thermal cameras!”
We have two thermal cameras set up. If a student is shown with a temperature of over 37.2 C, an alarm will go off and they have to report to the nurse. Problem is, as previously mentioned, it’s summer. Many students are like me, biking or walking into work to avoid the stuffy trains and buses. This means the alarms will go off, and a student will have to get checked out, even though it’s really just exercise heat, not a fever.
We can hear the school announcements in the morning for rule changes. This morning it was just announced that students can take off their masks for P.E. class. Apparently, there were problems with the kiddos getting their masks dirty while playing sports, and to that I say, “No shit, Sherlock.” The solution is kids can take them off or leave them on, but it’s “highly recommended” they keep them off. I’m still surprised we’re having P.E. at all with how hot it is and the AC units are on low.
Still, the the overall caution is appreciated. All the teachers are tense, an underlying stress, unspoken but there in the air. We’re strict on the rules, whereas last year the teachers let kids get away with murder, this year it’s all hard business. “Don’t break the rules! You can be suspended.” Students who don’t comply must be taken out of this system, because all it takes is one.
One asymptomatic student who shared a bottle of water. One teacher who took of their mask and leaned over a desk. One parent with good intentions that brought food for a whole class. We have to limit the risk of exposure as much as we can.
But I can tell just by the end of this week, the students are already getting lax. More are clustering in the halls and in the classroom while on breaks. The homeroom teachers monitor them at lunch time, but even the teachers are feeling the toll of lecturing over every little thing.
It’s awful for bonding, too. Homeroom teachers are often like a second or third parent here in Japan. They have to keep track of each kid in their progress (or lack of) in education, of course, but also their health. If a students gets sick, the homeroom teachers contact the parents. If a student is having mental health issues, too, our school has the homeroom teachers talk with the school counselor. It’s hard to get kids to open up and talking to you when you have to be this level of strict right off the bat.
I’m also feeling a disconnect from most of the students. My new schedule has me essentially starting from scratch, with a bunch of classes full of students who didn’t have me last year. It’s already difficult as a foreigner who is forced to speak to them in only English, but now I have a whole new set of strict rules in addition to a mask covering my face and muffling my voice.
I feel like I’m shouting through the fabric most days. The students can barely hear me in the back of the class, and I wish I could get a microphone set or something, but I know the school would never go for it. My voice gets raw by the end of four classes, but what can I do? Gotta keep going.
The classes are divided by evens and odds with only forty minutes per lesson. While less class time sounds easier, it’s strangely not? Most of the lessons I prepped last year involved fifty minutes of work, also a lot of group work, presentations, etc. Everything needs to be re-done with a new time frame, and I’ve got to cram enough stuff in there in order to make a final exam for my special returnee class.
I don’t know how this can be sustainable with the new active cases fluctuating. I’m predicting in the near future we’ll have a small surge. It won’t be as big as the one in April and May, perhaps, but I’m thinking it will happen. When it does, I need to make a plan for the school closing down again, even just for a few days or temporarily.
Honestly, what even could we do if that happens? I don’t know. Kill off summer break completely? Just work through until December? But with the experts calling for a possible resurgence of COVID19 in the fall, as most viruses tend to change by that time, would we be out for the rest of the year if we get a third wave?
I don’t know, and I’m not alone in the floundering uncertainty of this unknown future. Teachers whisper and chat about it in Japanese all around me, all in hushed voices about what to do, how to plan, should we even bother at this point? We’re all in this “new normal” that feels like at any second it could fall out from under our feet.
These are all struggles teachers are facing on an international scale. We’re trying to fit the students and ourselves into a place where we have to fight against our very human nature to be social, and if we don’t, we’re putting these kids at risk. Without being social, though, we’re sacrificing the bond between students and teachers that makes school life at least bearable. Now, it feels like I’m just fighting against the inevitable tide of another wave incoming.
Regardless, I’ll keep going, just like everyone else. Hopefully the third wave won’t come, and I’ll have these kids for a good two months before the fall hits. I prefer to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, so that’s my goal for this next week. If I get enough prepped and done by this week, I could do online classes this time that aren’t rushed.
The new normal kind of demands this readiness, the preparation for the eventual (maybe) floor drop. COVID19 has stolen any sense of certainty for the next year or so, but that doesn’t mean we give up or just stop moving. I have to keep going, because these students are counting on me to be there. I can’t let them down, so I’ll be here, however I can be.