The Effect of Silent Eating during Lunchtime at Schools on the COVID-19 Outbreaks

Author Name TAKAHASHI Ryo (Waseda University) / IGEI Kengo (Keio University) / TSUGAWA Yusuke (UCLA) / NAKAMURO Makiko (Faculty Fellow, RIETI)
Creation Date/NO. September 2023 23-E-068
Research Project Implementing Evidence-Based Policy Making in Japan
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Silent eating—no talking during mealtimes—was used as a measure to reduce the spread of infectious diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic because the emission of droplets during conversations was considered a risk factor for spreading the virus. Japan implemented silent eating during school lunchtimes in February 2020, and it remained in effect until November 2022. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potentially negative effects of the policy on children's well-being and educational attainment. More importantly, no study to date has examined its effectiveness in reducing the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. This study aims to address this important knowledge gap by examining the impact of silent eating on the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. In November 2022, the Japanese government announced that silent eating in public schools was no longer needed, triggering some schools to discontinue this measure while other schools continued its implementation. Utilizing this cancelation of the silent eating requirement as a natural experiment, we investigated whether silent eating was associated with a reduced risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. We measured the probability of class closures in public schools (the government’s guidelines required class closures when more than one child in a class was infected with COVID-19) by applying a Difference-in-Differences model with two-way fixed effects to panel data. We found no evidence that silent eating was associated with a reduced probability of class closures. Heterogeneity analysis also revealed that our findings did not vary by school characteristics. Our findings indicate that policymakers should be cautious about using silent eating at schools as a potential lever to control outbreaks of infectious diseases.