Japanese exchange program cancelled due to COVID-19


Coronavirus, a virus that often manifests as coughs and fever, has been rapidly spreading across the globe since Jan. 2019. Photo courtesy of BBC.

Keertana Senthilkumar, Staff Writer

Jefferson’s Japanese Exchange program with Chiben Wakayama High School was cancelled for this school year as a coronavirus precaution. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, superintendent Scott Braband sent out an update announcing that many foreign exchange programs across Fairfax County will be postponed, effective until June 30, 2020. The decision was made based on Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. This safety measure was taken before two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Fairfax County (as of Sunday, March 8). At Jefferson, one program impacted is the homestay Japanese exchange program.

“We have a sister school in Japan (Chiben Wakayam of the Gakuen prefecture), every year six boys and six girls come. They spend two weeks with us, it’s a homestay. They come every year, but we go to visit their school every other year. We don’t go this year, and thank goodness,” Japanese teacher Mr. Koji Otani said. 

The program connects students from different cultures. 

“You live with someone you host and learn about them as a person. It’s surprising how much of a bond can be made in that time frame. I’ve made some great friends that I still interact with to this day through this program, with people here and abroad,” senior Benjamin Altermatt said.

The program has continued for almost thirty years now, consistently. 

“We started this program in 1993, so it’s been 27 years. There are a lot of homestay programs around, but our program is unique in the way that it’s one of the longest lasting programs in the country. Usually when the headmaster changes, the program discontinues. We are lucky to have almost three decades of relationship,” Mr. Otani said. 

Sensei Otani considers the program a win-win situation. 

“Those students can learn American culture and also develop good language skills in English. As for our students too, it’s a great opportunity to learn Japanese culture,” Mr. Otani said. 

In fact, students were disappointed at the missed opportunity.

“I will not be able to meet these students and I won’t be able to have what otherwise might have been a fun and culturally educating experience,” freshman Rachel Huang said. 

However, the cancellation was an important decision for the county’s safety.

“I asked the county, ‘considering the situation happening in Japan, as a public school, are we open to the students in Japan?’ The county health officials and the superintendent office got together and decided for the safety of the community and students: it’s better to cancel,” Mr. Otani said.

According to Altermatt, the scenario could be described as “better safe than sorry.”

“Japan made the decision to shut their schools nationally for a significant amount of time, and Fairfax as a county responsible for the wellbeing of their students took notice of CDC nationwide suggestions and followed suit,” Altermatt said. 

“The program has deep roots in TJ, however. I am sure that Otani Sensei will be back at it next year for sure,” Altermatt said. “To people who feel as though they are missing out on an opportunity, stay tuned.”