Once the State of Emergency was lifted, the talk of schools reopening began. Up until that point, I had been doing lessons remotely or recording video lessons for students to access whenever they wanted. But now that the government was lifting the SOE, it meant back “normal.” The boys’ school announced that for the first 2 weeks of June, students would attend for the first 3 periods and be sent home for lunch. It coincided with my classes resuming in-person learning, which were slated for mornings as well.
The first day back for me was met with trepidation. For 3 months the entire country sheltered in place for the most part. We were mindful of the 3 C’s (see below), so we rarely ventured by train and when we did, we only got on if it was pretty empty.
I figured that since the SOE was lifted, I wouldn’t be the only one summoned back to work. I hesitantly made my way to the train and was stunned to find the platform as full as it was before the pandemic. It was the weirdest feeling; almost unreal seeing so many people. It was even more unreal when the already packed train pulled up. I took a deep breath (under my mask) and stepped on to the train, barely 6 inches separated me and the next person. It was a tense 10 minute ride to Umeda station, a major hub of Osaka. I gasped as the train pulled in and I saw the sea of people waiting for the train. I was able to snap a picture as those commuters piled into the train, some choosing to wait for the next one.
I found comfort in seeing that just about everyone complies with the mask recommendation. I transfer to my next train, which is also crowded, but I only ride for 3 minutes on that one, so I hold my breath the entire way and get out with 1/2 of the commuters. I walk 10 minutes to the school to find the required hand sanitizer bottles on either side of the entrance, I also find a thermal reading camera that displays your temperature on the screen. I was unprepared to see my sweaty face on display, which I chose not to post here!
I then wait for the elevator to take me up to the staff room on the 4th floor. Yet another surprise!
Feet placement placards in the elevator. Michael tells me that “feet placement placards” isn’t the term, but we didn’t have the term social distancing before this did we? I am apparently supposed to face the wall and only 4 people can be in the elevator at a time. My elevator companion is also having trouble facing the right way. The funny thing is, the elevators in Japan are tiny and I have gotten used to cramming into a 5×5 foot space with at least 10 other people. So this 4 person max ride feels quite spacious. Oh, and the reason all 4 placards are not in use is that there are signs on the 1st floor saying students must use the stairs, even if their class is on the 10th floor. Yikes!
Not only have the elevator protocols changed, but I was given a face shield to wear in conjunction with my mask. I am also required to teach behind a sheet of plastic hanging from the ceiling. If I stay behind the sheet, I can take off my shield, but since I walk around the classroom a ton, I just keep it on, so as not to have to fuss with it.
It’s uncomfortable to wear these layers. It feels impersonal not to be able to high 5 or get near the students. It feels unnatural looking out at the masked, spread out students. But in the midst of this pandemic, it’s what has to be done to safely go back to school. As the summer break winds down in the States, my educator friends are uneasy about the possibility of holding classes in person. Districts are feeling the pressure under the current administration to reopen schools. It makes me sad and mad. Even with these safety measures in place, I still feel uneasy at times. I can’t imagine not having hand sanitizers at the entrance to the school and in front of every classroom. Or having some students and staff deciding to exercise their right to not wear a mask. The number of COVID cases in Japan in early August are on the rise and some say we are seeing a second wave. One of my classes has decided to go back to video lessons. One school shortened the semester and another has decided to split one class in two with half of them watching the lesson remotely, while the other half is in the class with me. These are uncertain times for sure. I think the hardest part is staying vigilant with the 3 C’s, sanitary practices and social distancing. What I find endearing though, and what gives me strength is that along my commute, there are banners at the stations and walkways saying, “Let’s hang in there together, Osaka.” Just what I need; a reminder that we ALL are in this together.