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Japan teachers struggle to get kids to take off masks even as temps hit dangerous levels

Second graders are instructed by their teacher to remove their masks before they go home, at Hiranishi Elementary School in Nagoya's Nishi Ward on June 29, 2022. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

As record-setting summer heat engulfs the Japanese archipelago, and the coronavirus pandemic continues to roll on, schools across the country are divided over one fundamental question: to mask or not to mask.

    The education ministry has repeatedly asked that children remove masks during gym class and on their way to and from school to prevent heatstroke. But the guidance seems to have fallen on deaf ears even in areas where Japan's rainy season is over and the worst heat of the year has set in. Schools are apparently afraid to ignore children's and parents' desire to keep face coverings on out of COVID-19 infection fears.

    At around 2:30 p.m. on June 29 at the municipal Hiranishi Elementary School in Nagoya's Nishi Ward, a female teacher was telling second graders on the playground before they headed home, "It's so hot today that it's dangerous to your lives. You need to take off your masks on your way home."

    That day, a heatstroke alert was issued for Aichi Prefecture for the first time this year, with the mercury hitting a high of 37.5 degrees Celsius in Nagoya. Even then, some children were seen passing through the school gate for home with their masks on. When a Mainichi Shimbun reporter asked why they were keeping their masks, one of them answered, "I'm scared of heatstroke, but I'm 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."

    The education ministry on June 10 urged the local boards of education to provide thorough instruction to schools to make sure children remove masks during gym class and club activities, indoors or outdoors, and on their way to and from school. The ministry advises that children not talk in close proximity when maskless.

    Although the ministry had sent out these rules in May, there were multiple cases of children being taken to hospital with heatstroke symptoms after exercising with their 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.

    Second graders are seen raising their hands after being asked by their teacher whether it was hot, before they head home from Hiranishi Elementary School in Nagoya's Nishi Ward on June 29, 2022. Some children kept their masks on even after they were urged to take them off. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

    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."

    In Tokyo's Adachi Ward, the ward office sent out emails to guardians of public elementary and junior high school students after the June education ministry notice, asking them to encourage their children to remove masks in summer when heatstroke risks rise. However, some parents are expressing concern over family members with underlying health conditions. There are also some children who refuse to doff their masks as they are embarrassed about showing their faces.

    More than two years into the pandemic, masks have become part of people's lives and there are now few opportunities to show our full face to others. A phrase now commonly seen on the internet compares removing masks to stripping off one's underwear, calling masks "face underpants." An Adachi Ward official said, "Some children cover their mouth with their hands out of embarrassment even after removing their masks at teachers' instruction."

    Professor Ryoji Kasanami at the 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."

    (Japanese original by Yongho Lee, Makoto Fukazu and Ai Kunimoto, Tokyo City News Department, and Richi Tanaka, Nagoya News Center)

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