Japanese children allowed to talk again at lunch as Covid cases fall | Japan

After two years of eating in almost monastic silence, children in Japan have been allowed to chat with their classmates over lunch as Covid cases continue to fall in the country.

During the pandemic, elementary and middle school classrooms have echoed with silverware and crockery, and in some cases pipe music, but young patrons have been silenced as part of efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

In many schools, children have been told not to eat when they face each other and not to talk to their classmates. Instead, they must observe mokushoku – or still eating.

But as Covid-19 cases surge across the country, some schools have abandoned the code of silence, fearing it will affect the social and academic development of children as young as six.

The education authority in Fukuoka, western Japan, said it is lifting a ban on lunchtime conversations in elementary and middle schools – where children eat together in their classrooms – provided students speak softly.

However, their desks will still be facing the front of the classroom and they will be required to wear a mask when joining in a shared chorus of “Itadakimasu’ – a common expression of thanks before eating.

The move was welcomed by teachers in the city. “The silent eating has been going on for a long time,” Kenji Tanaka, an elementary school principal, told the Mainichi Shimbun. “I hope that there will soon be happy lunch breaks at school again.”

The parents, however, were divided. While some were happy their children can now interact normally with their friends, others said lifting the ban was premature.

“My child is used to eating in silence and I’m sure they won’t feel lonely when they come home with their family,” said one mother. “I’m concerned about the possibility of infection, so I hope they continue to eat without speaking.”

But other prefectures are also relaxing their rules. Miyazaki ended his silent lunch earlier this month, while schools in Chiba, near Tokyo, found a compromise that allows kids to face each other but eat without speaking.

Pressure to introduce some semblance of normalcy in schools has mounted since the government lifted “quasi-emergency” virus measures for the general population, including restrictions on dining out, in March.

School officials are also being asked to adopt a sensible approach to masks during physical education classes after rising temperatures sparked a spate of heat stroke among children forced to wear face coverings during exercise.

The incidents prompted Education Minister Shinsuke Suematsu to urge teachers to allow children to remove their masks on the way to and from school and during physical education classes.

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