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Japan schools diverge on mask use amid heatstroke fears, promote umbrellas for distancing

Pupils at Dojiyama Elementary School in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, are seen going to school on the morning of May 27, 2020, while carrying umbrellas, in this image provided by the school.

Concerns over pupils' risk of heatstroke from wearing masks while going to and from school are deepening, with institutions adopting a variety of measures based on their own judgment and guidance from the government.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology released a manual on May 22 with guidelines stating that masks "should be removed if there is a high risk of heatstroke." But many schools are still instructing children to wear masks based on previous ministry bulletins saying they should generally be kept on.

Some schools have stopped asking pupils to wear them, instead instructing them to carry open umbrellas. Expressing his concern on the matter, the principal at Dojiyama Elementary School in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The risk of getting heatstroke when walking outside with a mask on is very high."

In this file photo, masked elementary school students are seen in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, on May 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuka Asahina)

From May 27, the school has asked students traveling to and from school to use umbrellas. The thinking behind this is that umbrellas not only block exposure to the sun's rays, but create a fixed distance between the children. The school's policy on wearing masks on the way to school and while going home has also changed, and pupils no longer have to wear them.

"We're particularly concerned about children in the lower grades," the principal said. "It's harder for them to realize that they're becoming unwell from the heat, and there are also many pupils who do realize but can't voice it."

The education ministry has released statements in stages on the usage of masks as schools are reopened. A notice sent out on May 13 called for masks to "generally be worn during educational activities at school." Because of that, many municipal governments and schools seem to have decided that wearing masks when commuting to and from school would be compulsory.

A submission from a child's guardian to a school in Chiba Prefecture which will open in June and require pupils to wear masks outdoors is seen in this image from May 27, 2020. It reads, "It's impossible for the children to walk for 30 minutes with masks on." (Mainichi)

But as temperatures have risen, so too, gradually, have concerns about heatstroke, and on May 21 the Japan Sports Agency released its own advisory, stating it was not necessary to wear masks during P.E. lessons. The next day, a health management manual for schools was released with passages that read, "If it is judged that adverse health conditions such as heatstroke have a high chance of arising from wearing masks, please remove them. In such an event, please take care to ensure a sufficient distance is kept between students and to ensure ventilation, among other considerations."

Signaling a wish to probe further changes to the manual and provide other follow-up advice, an individual in charge at the education ministry's Health Education and Shokuiku Division told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Wearing a mask while traveling to and from school on hot days may conversely present a greater danger."

On May 26, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced their points for preventing heatstroke, which advise that if people outdoors can maintain distances of 2 meters or more between each other, it is acceptable for them to remove their masks.

Akira Kamikawa, chairman of the Japan Pediatric Association, commented on the situation, "If children keep a distance from each other and refrain from conversation, then I think it's fine for them to remove their masks during trips to and from school." He added, "Schools are already under a considerable burden from infection prevention measures, but I'd like them to proceed by choosing methods that consider the reality of children's positions rather than just rigidly adhering to the rules."

(Japanese original by Shuji Ozaki, Tokyo Local News Group)

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