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Karen Noll charts the course of ASIJ's move to Distance Learning and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school.
The phrase 空気を読む (koo-kee oh yoh-mu) means literally reading the air, inviting an intersection between literal and emotional atmosphere. The science of breathing is placed next to the wisdom of comprehending a situation.
In a mid-April message to the ASIJ faculty and staff, Head of School Jim Hardin used the Japanese phrase 空気を読むto encourage emotional comprehension of the world we found ourselves in. He invited us to invoke the phrase in our work with students, to read their air—their confusions, disappointments, longings, ambitions, fears. As long as we kept reading the air, our students would be safe. He would do the same—for teachers, for staff, for families.
The first official ASIJ communication about the coronavirus was not alarming. Yue Takigayama, Head Nurse in the Health Center emailed the community—parents, students, faculty and staff—and asked for everyone to be vigilant about handwashing, face touching and mask wearing. That was January 23. It seemed like a typical winter season health reminder. Later that week, a message from the leadership team addressed a few items on the PTA calendar and pitched the Kyogen performance—nothing at all about the virus that would eventually transform our lives.
During the four weeks of February that followed, communication from the school became increasingly more specific and more serious, and slowly life began to change. Bus cleaning would be more frequent and more vigorous. High fevers would be treated with more caution than usual. Families were asked to stop bringing home-made food to share on campus. School-sponsored excursions outside of Japan were canceled. Professional development with colleagues from other schools ended abruptly. Guests to the campus postponed their visits. But still we enjoyed each
other’s company every day—traveling to and from campus, sharing lunch, laughing with wide smiles and open faces.
A Crisis Response Team (CRT) convened in the first week of February and consisted of Jim Hardin (Head of School), Bhupesh Upadhyay (CFO/COO), Yue Takigayama (Head Nurse), Jackie Douglass (Counseling), Monica Clear (Student Safeguarding), Matt Wilce (Director of Communications), Brian Kelley (Athletics and Activities Director), and each Division Head—Christy Carrillo (Early Learning Center), Marc L’Heureux (Elementary School), Pip Curtis (Middle School), Jon Herzenberg (High School). On February 11, the World Health Organization gave the new disease its official n a m e — C O V I D -19.
Early in the month, the CRT discussions prompted Scott Wilcox (Deputy Head of School for Learning) and Jim Hardin to have a look at the school’s Distance Learning Plan (DLP)—a document that had been sitting mostly unopened in Google folders. It was first drafted in 2009 when the H1N1 pandemic raised the possibility that the school might have to close, and was revised again in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Triple Disasters. Neither of those historical events closed the school for more than six days. The document was solid but needed revisions. Others headed to the mountains for the mid-winter ski holiday, but Hardin spent his time at home pouring over the document, tightening its message and honing its relevance to COVID-19.
By the Monday after the ski break, the pace of developments in the region warranted a message to all faculty and staff. Wilcox solicited feedback on the DLP while still using phrases such as “if we were ever to implement the plan” and promising to share it with parents by the end of the week—just to ensure the community that the school was prepared but certainly not to declare a school closure. On Wednesday Hardin shared the Distance Learning Plan with parents and stressed that the school was not facing imminent closure. He was reading the air as he wrote that “Most members of our community will not have previously experienced something quite like this, which is why it’s important to understand what a major shift Distance Learning would be.” Then, the next day—Thursday, February 27th—Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a formal request that all schools across Japan should close the following Monday.
No one saw that coming. Within hours of Abe’s announcement, Hardin sent a “hold tight” message to the community. He assured everyone that Friday’s school day would take place as usual—buses, classes, lunches—and that a more conclusive message would be sent by Friday mid-day.
Friday, February 28 turned out to be the last day the whole community shared common spaces on the two campuses—Chofu and ELC. There was a suspended sense of time that morning, a heightened intensity to the luxury of being together, of breathing the same air. Eye contact was perhaps more frequent and more extended. In a paradox of knowing uncertainty, we prepared to depart from the rooms that defined us and begin our lives in spaces that confined us. It was announced that school would be closed until the first day back after spring break. Teachers encouraged students to gather what they would need to sustain Distance Learning for three weeks. After-school activities were canceled. Everyone went home.
After that unsteady Friday, that final day of the old normal, the first two days in March featured a flurry of activity on campus—teachers working together, mastering Google Meet, modifying or sculpting plans for the remainder of March. The words synchronous and asynchronous became consequential vocabulary and contentious ideological camps. Then, on the morning of March 4, the flurry of campus energy was transferred to screens for 199 teachers and 1670 students. Distance Learning began.
The DLP is a 17-page document. It includes a summary of technology management systems but not a list of specific tools and apps. It offers broad strokes of pedagogical philosophy for each level of the school. For example, Early Learning Center philosophy emphasizes interactions at home that focus on holistic language learning and emotional needs, specifically the historical context which has created Distance Learning. Whereas at the elementary and middle school levels, the DLP shifts focus to the role of parents. There is a distinct recognition that MS students should be less dependent on parents than ES students. While the ES teachers “will provide direction to families on how best to support student learning and the expected level of adult involvement,” for MS students the learning experiences are “designed to be completed independently or in collaboration with other students. Tutoring is not recommended, nor should a parent/guardian be too involved.”
The DLP’s core lies in the two sections called “10 Guidelines for ASIJ Teachers” and “10 Guidelines for ASIJ Parents.” The heavy lifting during Distance Learning will be done by teachers and parents. For teachers, designing assessments will be one of “the most challenging adjustments.” Without the constraints of a classroom which offers options for ensuring the security and reliability of an assessment, teachers will have to “think differently about the end goal to performance instead of forcing a traditional assessment method that doesn’t fit distance learning.” For parents, creating physical learning spaces and ensuring regular daily routines will be their job. Screen time and social interactions are also the responsibility of the parents—keeping an eye on too much or not enough. The document even asks parents to both monitor exercise and to model it! And, of course, emotional health. Working from home will be stressful; wondering about the world will be stressful; feeling sad about everything that has changed will be stressful. Educators have always known that parents are critical in the support of learning institutions and the development of healthy, kind, smart, happy kids—but Distance Learning demonstrates more than ever that ripening apples need massively steady, robustly rooted trees from which they fall.
ASIJ’s Distance Learning Plan was openly available on the internet with a Creative Commons License. As Jim Hardin explains, “We are experiencing trials that amplify the importance of generosity and service. We have learned from other schools. If ASIJ’s planning helps another school, perhaps we make a difference as an institution, which can only be good.” Numerous requests came in from teachers and administrators around the world asking permission to use parts of the plan for their schools. The same was true with other media ASIJ shared online. For example, ASIJ second-grade teacher Lo Wood uses her Instagram account to share ideas with other teachers and to be a positive source of energy for her students and their families. In the first weeks of Distance Learning she received up to 30 requests a day for her mindfulness, indoor recess and brain break ideas. Even in late May, after nearly three months of teaching from her apartment, Lo’s optimism was generous. She was awash in gratitude for her colleagues, her students and their parents. She said her students “have continuously shown honesty and awareness of how difficult this has been.” Also, they have surprised her daily “with different passion projects they dive into with their extra time at home.” One second-grader designed his own chemistry project by working with his mom to make homemade bath bombs. “He was giving me advice on epsom salt to oil ratios,” Lo explained.
Because a DLP is meant to be applicable in any type of school closure, it does not address the specific needs of a spring semester including standardized testing administered by external organizations. For example, at ASIJ grades 3–8 use the MAP tests (Measure of Academic Progress) to generate data for both families and curriculum specialists. The organizing body for MAP testing—NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) recommended not taking them. On its website, NWEA explained that the data would likely be unreliable. In their attempt to imagine the implications of this unprecedented situation, they explained that “While it is difficult to speculate on what missing months of school may mean for student achievement, research on seasonal learning and summer learning loss can offer some insights.” For the high-school students, however, it was a completely different situation. Canceling external exams meant compromising an essential part of a student’s college application portfolio. SAT and ACT college readiness tests are nearly as rock solid in the life of a graduate as a mortar board and tassel. But those exams take place in crowded rooms for hours-long sessions and were simply canceled. The College Board AP (Advanced Placement) exams, however, required a more creative solution.
Scheduled every year across the globe during the first two weeks in May, Advanced Placement exams are a big deal. Nearly five million exams were taken in 2019. When Distance Learning began, 418 ASIJ students were preparing for exams—naturally many students, teachers, parents and counselors were worried. Then, in mid-March, The College Board announced that all AP exams would be taken from home. At first it seemed ludicrous. How would that work? But slowly the details emerged, and we all began to imagine millions of students sitting at desks in thousands of towns and cities spanning dozens of time zones, all unified by the same question prompts about Virgina Woolf or The Monroe Doctrine or the Laffer curve. It had a kind of “We Are the World” quality, and everyone dug in to make it happen.
The person on whom the bulk of this heavy work rested was Doug McQueen, high school counselor and the ASIJ coordinator for AP exams. Doug spent nearly as many hours on this task as exams taken in 2019—millions. He was mastering the details of the new exam-taking conditions and requirements and then ensuring that all students and parents understood what they needed to do. In his downtime, Doug was often seen in the ASIJ fitness room, working off the stress of the task and building new muscle for the weight of his responsibilities. Dates shifted. Exams were shortened. Content was truncated. For example history would be only 45 minutes instead of three hours. Essays could be typed or hand-written. Chinese and Japanese would be only fifteen minutes instead of two hours. Skills demonstrated would be only speaking and listening, no reading or writing. And most disruptive of all, The College Board decided to offer only one exam time which meant that students in Asia would be taking their exams in the middle of the night—either 1 AM or 3 AM or 5 AM. Despite pleas from many voices, the decision held firm. Jet-lag-like symptoms disrupted sleep-wake cycles, and technical problems led to a bevy of disgruntled students who have to retake some exams in June. While the adjustments were challenging, most students and teachers were happy to proceed with the concrete, rigorous focus of external exams.
In the weeks before spring break, it seemed unlikely that we would be returning to campus on March 30. COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. On March 19 Jim Hardin wrote to explain that the ASIJ Board of Directors had approved of the decision to extend Distance Learning to April 6. On March 27 it was extended to April 13. And on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 1, we learned that the school would not reopen for the remainder of the school year. The slowly unfolding announcements of extensions and then closure each came with a kind of jolt, a kick in the gut. Surges of creativity and resilience were of course happening at kitchen tables and study desks all over Tokyo and its western suburbs, but this work was not easy. For teachers. For students. For parents. For counselors. For administrators. For administrative assistants. For coaches. For cafeteria and Kiosk staff. For librarians. For tech specialists. For the Japan Center. For the Health Center. For the Advancement Office. For the Business Office. For bus drivers. For guards. For maintenance staff. Not easy at all.
Another task force was assembled to discuss and draft guidelines for reopening in August—the Roadmap for Reopening. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were canceled on March 24, and following that so were ASIJ’s summer programs. On April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a State of Emergency through Golden Week for Tokyo and several other prefectures, so Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike requested all of us to "stay home."
One critical communication link throughout the difficult spring months were the FAQ pages. Parents could use a Google Form to ask any question anytime. Teachers could do the same. Two separate lists for those two separate audiences were kept up-to-date. The amount of text was exhausting, but the pay-off was immense. Hardin and Upadhyay penned most of the answers with help from divisional principals and others. These documents grew weekly like spring bamboo sprouts in Kyoto gardens. The bi-weekly community updates occasionally offered a lighter side of the situation we found ourselves in—for example, a math problem for reopening.
A standard ASIJ bus has 26 seats and can fit 53 passengers. The width of a bus is 240cm and the length of the interior of a bus is 890cm. Seats are 65cm apart. If guidelines recommend a distancing norm of 1.5 meters between passengers, how many passengers can safely fit on one bus?
As we all witnessed during stay-at-home orders, quarantine, self-isolation and lockdowns in whatever corner of the world we found ourselves in, the technology that made it possible for us to feel togetherness was amazing. We all learned to Zoom. We all marveled at the ways that entertainment professionals continued to provide much-needed art and humor using tech magic that created virtual symphonies, comedy sketches, global poetry readings and even the public performances of politics via the Parliament of the United Kingdom or SCOTUS hearings. At ASIJ our technology professionals were providing the same behind the scenes magic for teaching and learning.
Very early in the planning for Distance Learning, it became clear that the elementary school students and teachers would need a tool for delivering lessons. The middle and high school programs were already using Edsby and Google Classroom. Those students would not feel the same lurch that grades 1–5 would feel. ES teachers were happy with the learning platform called Seesaw, but IT Manager Josh Raub contacted support services to request a specific improvement. We wanted to access the “use logs” so teachers could identify who needed nudging and who was just fine. Seesaw programmers made the changes for the ASIJ site, liked it enough to integrate it into the dashboard and roll it out to other clients. Our needs and initiatives prompted changes that ended up helping out other schools. However, Seesaw turned out to be clunky for posting links, so most teachers migrated to Google Sites. Both teachers and tech teammates were reading the air.
Warren Apel, ASIJ’s Director of Technology, was busy keeping track of the many new tools that teachers across all four divisions were discovering and making useful. In late April he wanted to help make the transition from “free trial” to licensed ownership of the software and applications that were worth paying for. He eloquently articulated the specific moment in time we found ourselves in:
“Never before in history have teachers been able to have fully functioning versions of expensive software with all of their kids using it in real-world situations for so long. It's like the very best imaginable pilot testing ever. Just based on the value of the 23 programs that I am aware that we're using for free right now, we are using nearly $200,000 worth of software. It's pretty awesome.”
He helped teachers differentiate between what we already pay for, what is always free, and what will need to be purchased. Just the naming of the many tools of tech magic for teaching and learning can be entertainment itself: Flipgrid, Prism, Perusall, CK-12, Nod Reactions, Padlet, Screencastify, Newsela, Sora, Exam.net, Albert, Zoom, Miro, Edpuzzle, SmartMusic, WeVideo, Explain Everything, Education Perfect, PearDeck, Membean, Kahoot, Epic, BookFlix, Book Creator.
Of course, while Apel and Raub were busy-beavering on the official learning apps used by faculty, students sustained their social nourishment using other tech tools—Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, Discord, Netflix Party.
Almost in protest of all the fancy learning technology, the simple act of writing emerged as a steady friend to help process emotions. The eighth grade humanities students kept daily diaries and then chose one entry to share with classmates at the end of every week. In the early days of April, the writing was honest and frustrated:
“I’ve slowly been going crazy in this lockdown, no sports or friends,”
“My mom was panicking and I really did think she was crazy and over exaggerating,”
“I really want this pandemic to end as soon as possible, so I can live the way I did a few months back.”
“In my head, all of the worst-case scenarios came up,”
“The NCAA college basketball tournament (March Madness) got canceled entirely...that was also the moment I took in the seriousness of the situation.”
By late April, the writing had become calmer, more joyful —“I made chocolate chip scones with my mom the other day and it went really well.” And in one particularly figurative passage, Aina Matsumoto ’24 shows us how to appreciate the mind-bending task of slowing down to focus on threading a needle.
“Yesterday, my sister and I Facetimed my grandma to learn how to sew. I didn’t enjoy it so much at the beginning because I got frustrated when the thread didn’t go through the needle. As I did more, I really enjoyed it and I got to talk to my grandma too. My grandma also enjoyed it because she got to talk with us and also learn how to Facetime. I realized that I’ve been discovering new things during the quarantine and I don’t feel stressed or tired of the time I’m spending at home. Many of the activities that I didn’t like very much before are now one of my hobbies. I’m still trying to discover new things that could possibly become my hobby and I am in the learning zone.”
Although every student felt the grief of ending the year without final goodbyes and thank-yous—without the hug of a classroom teacher, a coach, bus monitor, a counselor— perhaps none felt it as deeply as the 2020 graduates. As May drew near, a special website with the specific purpose of honoring the 2020 graduates launched. The senior tradition of creating ema boards continued virtually. Photos from senior year events nudged nostalgic hearts. And Facebook profile pic frames helped ASIJ fans around the world show support for the senior class.
Sakiko Miyazaki ’20, an aspiring astrobiologist since she first looked through a telescope, chose a quote from a personal hero for her virtual ema board—Katherine Goble Johnson, the NASA scientist whose story was told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. “Like what you do, and then you will do your best.” Johnson passed away in late February this year, the same week ASIJ’s world changed.
With the end of the school year approaching, thoughts also turned to what would happen after the summer break. Following weeks of work, ASIJ's Roadmap for Reopening was shared with the community, laying out five guiding principles that would inform the School's decisions: to act with fidelity to ASIJ’s Commitment, Mission, and Core Values; to privilege face-to-face learning over remote learning whenever it is safe to do so; to prioritize health, safety, and wellbeing over other principles; to ensure hygiene and health-related policies are research-based, clearly communicated, effectively implemented, and diligently enforced; and to promote practices and policies which reduce risk of virus transmission and support our capacity to be responsive and agile when facing changing health circumstances. When the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) asked Jim Hardin for permission to share the document with its 9,000 members as part of their COVID-19 Briefing, he proudly wrote, “Our Roadmap is the work of dozens of people, none of whom asked for credit, recognition, or praise. We've also benefited immensely from the experiences of other schools that have so generously shared their work in these tumultuous times.” Continuing in the spirit of shared knowledge, Hardin added, “Over the next few months we'll continue to follow the science, assess lessons learned by schools worldwide, and refine our protocols and learning models.”
As preparations for graduations continued, nearly every senior came out to the closed Chofu campus for a short visit on a designated day in mid-May for a chance to pick up their cap and gown and take photos, naturally with masks on, under the iron gate or in front of a wall of classmates’ faces. The graduation ceremony itself was a stay-at-home live Google event featuring student graduation speaker Solomon Kim ’20 who is headed off to Emory University. His was the very difficult task of speaking words that might transform distanced companionships into strong, resilient bonds. Solomon joins the group of resilient Mustang graduates who had to make ceremony from calamity as we remember the graduates of 1918 after WWI, 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, 1945 after WWII, 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Dressed sharply for the occasion, Solomon told his classmates, “Our community is not defined solely by a special program, team-building event, or morning assembly—we are more than that. It is defined by genuine human connection—the willingness to support others when they need it and the vulnerability to ask for support when we need it.”
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.