At a time when Japan is experiencing record-breaking summer temperatures and the coronavirus pandemic is spreading, schools throughout the nation are split over whether or not to mask.
In order to avoid heatstroke, the education ministry has frequently urged students to remove their masks while in gym class and on their walk to and from the schoolhouse. It appears that even in locations where Japan’s rainy season has ended and the hottest temperatures of this year have set in, the advice has gone unheard. Schools seem to be hesitant to defy the wishes of children and parents to wear facial coverings because of worries of infection with COVID-19.
As second graders were leaving Hiranishi Elementary School in Nagoya’s Nishi Ward at 2:30 p.m. on June 29, a female teacher was advising them to be careful on the playground as a result of the extreme heat.
In Nagoya, the temperature soared to 37.5 degrees Celsius, prompting the first heatstroke warning of the year for residents of Aichi Prefecture. In spite of this, students were observed wearing masks as they left school to go home. In response to a question from a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, one of them said, “I’m scared of heatstroke, but I’m much more scared of the coronavirus.”
Momono Kojima, a 23-year-old teacher at the school, told the Mainichi, “I’ve been telling children to remove their masks for at least two to three minutes when they come back inside from the hot weather, as long as they don’t talk to each other. I also encourage them to drink water during class.”
It was recommended by the education ministry on June 10 that local boards of education train schools on the proper removal of masks during physical education and club activities, whether they take place inside or outdoors, as well as on the route to and from school. When they are not wearing masks, youngsters should avoid speaking to one another in close proximity.
Despite the ministry issuing these guidelines back in May, there have been several reports of children being rushed to the hospital with heatstroke symptoms after working out with face masks on. “We have no choice but to explain over and over to make this rule known to each board of education,” a ministry official said.
However, Hiranishi elementary principal Kozo Matsufuji, 55, stated, “It should essentially be left to each person’s discretion whether to wear masks or not, so we can’t tell children to remove their masks. But considering this sweltering heat, we cannot leave the decision to children, either. It’s also important to let them know the best timing to pull off masks and show them adults going without masks.”
A district office in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward issued letters to parents of public elementary and junior high school pupils after the June education ministry notification encouraging them to urge their children to remove their masks in the summer when heatstroke chances grow. Some parents, on the other hand, are worried about family members who have underlying health issues. Some children, however, refuse to remove their masks because they feel self-conscious about exposing their faces.
People have worn masks for more than two years now, and there are now few chances to display their whole faces to others. Masks are now referred to as “face underpants” on the internet because of a saying that equates removing masks to removing one’s underwear. An Adachi Ward official said, “Some children cover their mouths with their hands out of embarrassment even after removing their masks at teachers’ instruction.”
Professor Ryoji Kasanami at Nara University of Education, who is familiar with heatstroke countermeasures and school health issues, commented, “If you compare the risks of heatstroke and coronavirus in summer, heatstroke is much more likely to trigger a worst-case scenario such as death. I hope people will not strive for ‘zero risk’ (of infection).” Kasanami continued, “In Japan, people tend to decide things based on what others around them are doing, and the style of thinking logically and making their own judgments won’t spread quickly. People will first need to focus on avoiding the greater risk.”