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Editorial: With relaxed masking rules, it's time again to see kids' smiling faces in Japan

Japan's education ministry has unveiled examples of school life situations when children need not wear masks as a coronavirus transmission prevention measure.

    If there is enough space between children, they do not need to wear masks during gym class, club activities, and on the way to and from school. Masks are also not required during nature observation or outdoor sketching, which involve little or no conversation, and games such as tag that don't generally result in crowding.

    The government says it settled on the new masking guidelines for schools based on its mask policy shift overall, including for adults.

    Wearing masks in the hot and humid conditions that mark a typical Japanese summer increases heatstroke risk. This is especially true for children, who cannot yet sweat like adults, making it easy for heat to build up in their bodies. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is urging people to prioritize preventing heatstroke over masking.

    The government has said before that masks are unnecessary with sufficient social distancing. However, since schools have been called on to take strict anti-infection measures, masking has become the norm. In many cases, students are even required to wear masks during outdoor physical education classes.

    Since children and their guardians hold varying attitudes to masking, it is difficult for teachers to instruct all students to take them off. Many schools have told students they can take off their masks when they are hot, but apparently the children also tend to be hesitant.

    To avoid confusion, it is important for schools and education boards to carefully explain to children and their parents when masks are unnecessary. Care must also be taken to prevent peer pressure against children who wish to keep them on.

    Some observers are concerned about the impact prolonged masking could have on children's development. People infer the feelings of others not only through words, but also through facial expressions. With a large portion of other people's faces covered by masks, children are likely to lose chances to learn this unspoken form of communication.

    Children have had their opportunities to play closely with friends severely curtailed over the past two years of the pandemic. Some have pointed out that more children have been complaining of mental and physical issues because of this loss of connection. We need to pay attention to the psychological impact of having parts of childhood shorn away.

    The infection situation differs from region to region in Japan. We hope children's daily lives will be gradually restored to normality across the country, so that we can once more see their faces.

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