Canadian schools in Japan
adapt quickly against virus

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, organizations of all types have undergone great changes in order to adapt. Schools across the world closed and switched to e-learning to protect the health of their students, staff and families.

After some months, schools have reopened and staff have had to re­construct their entire way of working to ensure students can return safely. The Canadian spoke with three international schools in greater Tokyo and Kobe, about how the pandemic has affected their usual protocols, and how they are adapting to the new normal.


Earlier this year, the Japanese government requested that all schools close from March 2, a request that triggered the beginning of e-learning around the country. New teaching and learning styles had to be adopted, with many parents having to dedicate extra hours to helping their children.

Bunka Suginami Canadian International School (BCS), located in the Suginami district of Tokyo, was established in 2015 and provides a double-diploma program that allows students to graduate with diplomas from both Japan and Canada. Based on the curriculum taught in British Columbia, the program is approved by the Japanese and British Columbian ministries of education.

BCS principal Riyo Whitney — who is also a governor of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan — explained that they didn’t find themselves closed for long. “Our school closed one week before final exams were to start in March. Due to the end of the school year and spring break, our students didn’t lose much instructional time. The new school year started online in April, followed by a hybrid schedule in May.”

Columbia International School, located in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, follows an Ontario curriculum and teaches children ranging from those in kindergarten to older ones in grade 12. Principal Barrie McCliggott explained how the school moved to virtual learning from the beginning of March until June 1. From then to July 3 the school tran­si­tioned to a hybrid model, providing onsite learning and virtual learning for students who were overseas, outside the local area, or had special concerns. “On August 31 we opened onsite classes for all local students and con­tin­ued virtual learning for our overseas students,” he added.

Tech Power

For BCS, the transition to at-home learning was a swift and relatively easy one. Whitney said there were a few factors that eased adaptation. “Our students all have school-issued laptops and the use of technology is a part of our program, so we were able to go online with our lessons in the spring without delay. For new students, laptops were delivered to their homes, and technology orientation lessons were conducted during the first week of classes that included technical know-how as well as student responsibilities and expectations.” BCS teachers were well prepared to conduct online classes in an interactive way and make sure that group work was supported.

McCliggott said that Columbia also had a smooth transition. “Columbia International School was better off than most schools in that we have a very technologically rich learning environment. We have been a one-to-one laptop school from grades 7–12 for 20 years.”

Columbia has also made personal computers available for each student in elementary school. “This has allowed our teachers and students to become very computer literate, making the original transition to online learning easier,” McCliggott explained. Connected through a closed Google platform, the school uses the Google Education Suite during onsite and online classes.

“All of us, more now than ever, feel a collective responsibility in maintaining the wellbeing of our entire community.”

Safe Spaces

As schools were given the green light to open, many parents and students expressed concerns about how social distancing and appropriate hygiene could be maintained in schools. In response, they quickly implemented strict social distancing measures to ensure the health and safety of their communities.

Canadian Academy, a pre-K to grade 12 International Baccalaureate school located in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, was one of them. “Canadian Academy reviewed all its standard policies and programs throughout the spring and summer of 2020 and subsequently created and implemented a nearly 50-page safety manual. With its focus on the health and safety of our entire community, many new protocols were adopted,” explained Rob Smailes, the school’s director of admissions and advancement.

The school required students entering the campus to submit a health screening arrival card and made masks and temperature checks mandatory. “Within the school additional hand washing stations have been installed, as well as hand sanitizer outside of each class­room. Classroom layouts were adjusted to increase physical distancing and plexiglass shielding was installed in some areas. Our cafeteria was expanded into our atrium, creating additional space for eating while maintaining physical distance.”


The uncertainty and constant change during the pandemic have presented plenty of hurdles. Smailes detailed the problems that arose for the Canadian Academy during the national state of emergency in Japan. “Perhaps the biggest challenge with the new normal is the fact that schools are social institutions and our school is known for its strong community feel. It has been challenging to maintain that family spirit while limiting who is permitted on campus. The leadership team and our PTA have been exploring together how we can support our students and community as a whole.”

International schools in particular have seen students unable to return to Japan from their home countries due to global travel bans — in particular, Japan’s strict entry restrictions that have been in place since April. Whitney explained that BCS hires teachers directly from British Columbia, so while the new teachers this year arrived in time for the new school year, they had to undergo two weeks of quarantine. Additionally, the cancellation of group activities such as trips abroad has been a recurring theme around the globe, and one that affected the BCS, Whitney explained. “The biggest chal­lenge for us is the inability to send our students on trips abroad. We normally have our grade 10s spend five weeks in British Columbia during the summer, but they weren’t able to do so this year. Therefore, we offered a special summer program here in Tokyo, in lieu. Hopefully, they will be able to go to Canada next year.”

Bright Side

However, as with all negative situations, it is important to keep an eye on the silver lining. Smailes mentioned how online platforms and events have made school involvement more accessible for parents. “We’ve found that the community has been very supportive of the new way of doing things — such as our online Back to School Night, PTA meetings, principal’s coffees and parent–teacher conferences. With the added flexibility of being able to access from home or the office, it is wonderful that more parents are able to participate.”

Additionally, the use of online tools, software and resources has presented children with a new set of skills. McCliggott explained how e-learning has resulted in students of all ages at Columbia being able to develop and grow. “Our students from kindergarten to grade 12 are now very comfortable communicating with teachers and classmates through a variety of applications. Skills related to finding and verifying information found on the internet have improved and the ability of our students to become self-responsible learners who can self-regulate and work independently got a boost.” And Whitney explained that the situation has encouraged BCS team members to think outside the box: “It has certainly brought out the creativity of everyone on staff to create interesting and suitable lessons that combine the best of online with in-person teaching.”

As the pandemic continues and the world remains in a state of uncertainty, there is one thing in which all educational establishments can take comfort during this time, Smailes said. “All of us, more now than ever, feel a collective responsibility in maintaining the wellbeing of our entire community. Students, faculty, parents — all working together to help ensure the health of our children and each other.”

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