Face masks and social distancing proposed for Leaving Cert exams

Ireland can learn from arrangements in other countries, says Prof Sam McConkey

A  student wearing a mask takes part in a final secondary school exam in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

A student wearing a mask takes part in a final secondary school exam in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

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Authorities should consider requiring Leaving Cert students to wear face masks and to observe strict social distancing rules when exams get underway in late summer, according to a leading expert in infectious diseases.

Last Friday, 50,000 students in Hong Kong were among the first in the world to begin their final secondary-school exams. All candidates were required to wear face masks and have their temperature checked when they arrived at exam halls. In addition, all desks were spaced up to 1.8m apart, while exam invigilators were required to wear masks and latex gloves.

Professor Sam McConkey of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and an infectious diseases specialist, said Irish authorities should consider similar measures.

“There’s lot of wisdom in what they are doing and, given that we’ll be holding our exams in a few months time, we can learn from what others are doing.”

He said face masks should be considered for students in line with a broader examination of using them for the wider population. However, taking the temperature of students should not be necessary, he said, as research indicated these tests were often inaccurate.

Prof McConkey noted that many of our exam halls and schools buildings may not be well ventilated, which underlined the need for appropriate public health measures.

Two-metre social distancing rules should apply to students entering and leaving exam halls.

On the benefits of face masks, he said latest research indicated that there could be significant transmission of the virus for up to two days before a person developed symptoms.

“In some hospitals we started wearing them a few weeks ago any time we were close to patients. The HSE has since said that all staff should wear masks when they can’t keep a social distance,” he noted, highlighting regulations issued last week.

Recommending public use of masks, however, should only be done if there was an adequate supply of such barriers to keep up with demand, he said.

“Any plans we introduce need to be feasible and realistic. There is no point introducing measures if they can’t be implemented.”

Advice

Minister for Education Joe McHugh said he had been seeking the advice of public health experts over what measures would be required for the exams to take place safely. He said he had taken advice from experts, including Dr Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.

Mr McHugh said that officials would postpone finalising the Leaving Cert timetable to ensure authorities had access to the latest public health information. The Minister has announced that the exams are set to start on July 29th.

Under current Covid-19 guidelines, anyone who shares an enclosed space with a confirmed case for more than two hours is defined as having had contact with the individual. This could have implications for the duration of some exams, Mr McHugh pointed out.

Some exam papers – such as English paper two and Irish paper two – last more than three hours. This has prompted politicians to suggest cutting the exam time and giving students fewer questions.

Another option being examined by decision-makers involves holding one major exam each day and stretching the Leaving Cert timetable into early September.

While many countries such as the UK, France and the Netherlands have cancelled their final secondary-school exams, China and Germany are among countries that are pressing ahead with theirs.

In China, the ministry of education is planning health screening for students, along with requirements to disinfect examination venues and make sure they are well ventilated.

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