Japanese mothers struggle to cope after virus shuts schools

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Keiko Kobayashi and Sachiko Aoki, both employees of the staffing services company Pasona Inc., work as their children entertain themselves at the company's headquarters Monday, March 2, 2020, in Tokyo. Many Japanese schools were shut down Monday and spring holidays began unexpectedly early for children as part of a government-led measure to prevent further escalation of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO – Keiko Kobayashi brought her 7-year-old son to her Tokyo office on Monday after his school, like most others in Japan, suddenly closed for four weeks in a government effort to slow the rapid spread of the new virus. She was lucky — her employer agreed to let them temporarily share an executive office with another mother and child.

“I was shocked by the news of the school closures, and thought, what should I do?" said Kobayashi, a senior manager at a multinational staffing service provider. “There was no explanation of how this is going to work.”

In a country where nannies and babysitters are uncommon and mothers are still expected to be responsible for child rearing, the measure is forcing many employed mothers to limit their working hours. The situation is even harder for single parents and those with children who have disabilities.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a plan last Thursday to close schools across Japan from Monday until the end of the month. He said the coming period is critical in determining whether Japan can take control of the outbreak. Nearly 1,000 people, including 706 on a quarantined cruise ship, have been infected in the country and 12 have died.

The school closures come near the end of Japan's academic year, leaving little or no time for final exams or graduation ceremonies for the country's 12.7 million students.

Kobayashi said she is still exploring various options, including sending her son to a public daycare center for part of the day, or trying to work from home more often.

“But if I work from home, my son has TV and a lot of undesirable temptations when I'm not watching him,” she said. “Creating an environment where he can concentrate on his study will be a challenge.”

Abe excluded daycare centers and after-school clubs from the school closures to help parents with preschoolers or others who cannot get off work early enough, triggering questions about the effectiveness of the shutdowns.