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Covid-19: Teachers call for face masks to be worn by children aged over six

INTO seeks clarity on public health guidance relating to primary and special schools

Students with face masks enter their classroom at the Petri primary school in Dortmund, Germany. Face masks are not required in Irish primary schools. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Teachers have called for an urgent review of rules which exempt primary schoolchildren from wearing face masks in light of new international health guidance aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.

The World Health Organisation has issued updated recommendations which say children aged between six and 11 should wear face masks on a “risk-based approach”.

The WHO’s says this guidance is subject to a number of factors including the intensity of transmission in an area, the child’s ability to use the mask, access to masks and adequate adult supervision.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said on Tuesday that it has written to Taoiseach Micheál Martin seeking clarity on the public health guidance relating to primary and special schools It has called on the Government to “urgently review” guidelines in relation to children wearing face coverings.

“The union was promised in June that this guidance would be ‘updated to reflect the changing situation’ in the context of Covid-19 epidemiology in Ireland, and a review was also promised in light of the experience of other jurisdictions whose schools reopened in May and June,” it said.

The INTO said it sought clarity three weeks ago from Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in relation to the wearing of face coverings and the approach to be taken in the event that a pupil or staff member tests positive for Covid-19.

Testing access

“INTO has reminded An Taoiseach that as 100 children have tested positive in the last fortnight it is vital that priority access to testing and tracing be made available to everyone in the education sector,” it said.

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The union also restated a call for priority access to testing must to be made available to any asymptomatic teacher who requests it. This would help build confidence in the safety of schools as workplaces and address the reasonable concerns of many of its members, the union said.

“Prolonged absences from schools awaiting tests benefit no one,” it said.

The INTO also said it was aware of a number of members whose health was at “high risk” and who have multiple underlying conditions.

In what the union said was a “ grossly unfair move”, the teachers’ occupational health service, Medmark has advised that members with such conditions should return to school.

“INTO is now calling on government to intervene so that these members can appeal their Medmark decisions in a timely manner and have the opinion of their treating doctors fully taken into account rather than the Department simply adopting the view, often delivered remotely and facelessly, of the Department of Education’s health adviser,” it said.

“As our members return to the front lines this week, urgent and swift action from government is now required to review existing public health guidance and ensure it remains fit for purpose.”

Duty of care

The union added that parents were owed a duty of care by the government.

It said the employers should be instructed by the Government to provide flexibility for parents in their workplace, as they may need to take swift action to remove their child from the school or keep their child home where they are exhibiting symptoms of the virus.

Ms Foley, meanwhile, has said parents can be assured that schools are taking all necessary precautions to ensure children will return to “safe and welcoming” classrooms.

She said enormous work is being undertaken in school communities to provide a safe environment for the return of children to schools.

“For parents, I understand that you may feel anxious about your child’s return to school,” she said.

“We are living in a new normal. However, we have put in place all the precautions necessary and along with the dedication of the principals and teachers at a local school level, you can be assured that your child will return to a safe and welcoming classroom.”

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