Japan schools debate mask-wearing during PE
As summer approaches, and with it the high risk of heatstroke, many schools are grappling with whether students should wear masks during PE class.
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has said masks are not needed during PE, but fears over the coronavirus spreading have prompted many children to wear them anyway.
During PE class for about 30 sixth-grade students at an elementary school in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, the teacher in charge told the students to take off their masks, to help prevent heatstroke. However, one student put her mask back on, saying, “I’m scared I’ll get infected if I don’t have my mask on.”
If a student wants to wear a mask, their legal guardian can submit a written request to the homeroom teacher.
“I want to pay attention to even the smallest changes in the students’ physical condition,” the school’s principal said.
Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward is asking its municipal elementary and junior high schools to handle mask requests on a case-by-case basis, as many legal guardians do not want their child to take their mask off at school.
“Teachers need to pay particular attention to students wearing masks,” said a member of the ward’s board of education. “We instruct our teachers to talk to them frequently.
“It’s really hard on teachers, but to protect the students’ lives, we have to be alert.”
Keeping in mind risks other than the coronavirus, including heatstroke, the education ministry has deemed it unnecessary for students to wear masks during physical activities. However, it has also repeatedly said it will not deny students the right to wear a mask if they choose.
“Wearing a mask to decrease the risk of transmitting the virus carries with it the risk of heatstroke, but there will be a greater risk of virus transmission if a student takes off their mask,” said an official from Tokyo’s municipal board of education.
From May to September of 2019, a total of 8,707 children between the age of 7 and 17 were taken to the hospital for heatstroke, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. In May and June, slightly fewer than 1,000 needed treatment, but 1,988 were taken to the hospital in July and 3,494 in August.
Wearing a mask while exercising puts a great burden on one’s body, according to Hespen, an organization created by healthcare professionals to promote heatstroke awareness. According to the organization, a mask makes it hard for the body to thermoregulate itself, increasing the risk of heatstroke.
“As children are generally at a lesser risk of becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus, I believe that heatstroke — which can be fatal — is a more serious threat,” said the organization’s representative, Dr. Koichi Inukai. “Schools need to seek understanding from legal guardians that students should take their masks off during exercise.”