New advice to schools issued by the Department of Education this morning has stressed that children in third class and above should not be excluded from schools “in the first instance” for not wearing masks.
Instead, it says, the school should engage with the parents and, if no progress is made, then an inspector from the Department of Education will be contacted.
The new guidance also says that where a school agrees with parents that a mask is not appropriate for the child, no medical certification is needed for an exemption.
The guidance amends rules on mask wearing introduced at short notice last week which said that unmasked pupils in third class upwards will be refused entry to their school if they do not have a medical certificate to show they are exempt from the rules.
As part of the changes children aged nine and over are also required to wear masks on public transport and in retail and other indoor public settings
The guidance says any pupil with difficulty breathing or other relevant medical conditions are exempt from wearing face masks/coverings.
A pupil who is unable to remove the cloth face mask/covering or visor without assistance is also exempt along with children who have special needs or those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, sensory concerns or tactile sensitivity.
“It should also be noted that where a school is aware, having consulted with the parent/guardian that a child’s needs are such that mask-wearing is not appropriate, no medical certification is needed,” the advisory states.
Visors should be considered where face masks present an impediment to communication for pupils with a hearing impairment. Schools are asked to use their judgement in such cases.
It is recognised that wearing a face mask for long durations can be “challenging” for young children. Schools are advised to arrange regular breaks and facilitate children taking a break outdoors where possible.
Pupils do not have to wear a mask while eating their lunch at their desks or taking a drink during class.
In instances where classes are mixed, and a class comprises of pupils in third class and second class or a lower class, only pupils in third class are required to wear face masks.
It is not necessary for pupils to wear a face mask while engaged in PE (physical education), the guidance states. “Physical education should be outdoors if the weather permits. Indoor spaces should be ventilated well,” it adds.
Pupils are not required to wear a mask while singing or playing a musical instrument but should remain in pods and be socially distant.
The advisory explains that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has advised that the wearing of face masks is being introduced on a temporary basis and is subject to review in mid-February 2022.
The Irish College of General Practitioners representative on Nphet, Dr Mary Favier, said on Friday morning that GPs welcomed the policy of mask wearing by school children as they were another layer of protection against the spread of the virus.
There was no one solution for stopping the spread of Covid-19, she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. “Masks are one part of that.”
The extension of mask wearing to schools had been welcome and children had shown they were willing to wear them, she said.
The high numbers of children being tested at present was to be expected, she said, as they were not vaccinated. Testing would give a better idea of the level of the virus in the community and GPs had been referring children for testing to rule out respiratory infections and flu, she explained.
It was important for anyone with symptoms to self isolate and book a PCR test, she urged.
There were no dates yet for the extension of the vaccination campaign for children aged five years to 11 years, she said, but GPs were always enthusiastic about vaccines.
However, Dr Favier expressed concern about the decline in referrals for non Covid illnesses especially lung, breast and prostate cancer. If people had a long term cough or lumps it was “particularly important” for them to have them checked out. “Make those appointments”.
Meanwhile, the principal of a national school in Co Tipperary says there was full compliance at her school this morning with mask wearing.
Louise Tobin, principal of St Joseph’s in Tipperary town, told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that there had been great relief among teachers and principals at the withdrawal of the requirement that children not wearing masks be excluded from school.
It was something with which she was not comfortable, she added. As a principal she did not ever want to exclude a child from school. This was now a “softer approach” with a more sensitive use of language, she added.
Masks did not now have to be worn in the yard during break or when singing or playing instruments indoors provided there was good ventilation and the children were one metre apart, she said.
The speed with which the new mask wearing measures had been introduced last week had raised many practical questions, added Ms Tobin. There always had to be a lead in time with young children, and she had seen some levels of anxiety and self consciousness among some children.
Ms Tobin said she had explained to the children that the masks were needed to keep them safe in school.
There had been full compliance with mask wearing this morning apart from a few children who forgot their masks, which the school then provided. They were adult masks as child-sized masks were sold out.