Parents with kids in some nurseries in Japan have been put on the spot by being asked to consider keeping their kids at home to help reduce the number of children in the facilities' care and curb the risk of coronavirus infections.
The requests, made by municipalities in coronavirus hotspot areas, come amid the closure of a number of nurseries due to cluster infections among staff and children. But they also come as the central government asks facilities to stay open as much as possible, and have left parents confused about whether to comply.
A 36-year-old mother in Tokyo said she was "in shock" when, immediately after the country's second state of emergency was declared in early January, she was asked by the day-care facility looking after her 2-year-old eldest son if she could keep him at home due to "infection risks in group nursing."
The woman, who is currently on child care leave after giving birth to her second son, said she felt unable to object as she wanted her newborn to attend the same facility after she returns to work. The mother then decided to take care of her older kid at home once or twice a week, while continuing to send him to the day-care center on other days.
Mentioning factors that may have swayed her into acceptance, she said she had heard rumors about virus outbreaks at other day-care centers close by and felt that the risk of infection was a real one.
An official of Tokyo's Shibuya Ward said some parents have welcomed the nurseries' move as they think the municipalities' request makes it easier to get days off work in a Japanese corporate culture that can make taking holidays difficult.
But others say they feel troubled by the idea of being asked to refrain from sending their kids to nurseries that remain open, the official said.
According to the welfare ministry, a total of 62 facilities had temporarily closed as of Jan. 28 in 11 prefectures including Tokyo, Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka after reports of positive cases among staff and children.
During the first state of emergency that was in place nationwide in April and May last year, the welfare ministry asked municipalities to consider requesting parents to refrain from sending their children to day-care to reduce the number of kids in the facilities.
The move, however, which came while schools were closed, triggered confusion with some municipalities deciding to temporarily shut down day-care centers altogether in principle.
Despite the lack of any such request this time from the ministry, a number of Tokyo wards including Setagaya, Meguro and Arakawa, and five municipalities in the neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture such as Sagamihara and Kamakura, have asked parents to refrain from sending their children to day-care since the emergency covering these areas was declared on Jan. 7.
Many municipalities have provided refunds by the day to those who have offered to keep their kids at home.
A senior official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said the central government believes the facilities "should be open as a general rule."
"So far, we have not been aware of any major troubles, but would like municipalities to endeavor to provide services for those in need, even in the event that they have decided to reduce the number of children in day-care," the official said.
"Compared to the virus emergency last spring, we're starting to have a better grasp of anti-virus measures," said Aki Fukoin, who heads a group of parents concerned with nursery school management.
"Day-care facilities are important, not just for working parents but for children's growth as well. They should stay open as much as possible while limiting the risk of infections," she added.