Primary schoolchildren will not be required to wear face masks despite calls from some health experts to do so in light of rising Covid-19 case numbers.
Department of Education reopening guidance sent to all schools on Wednesday evening states that mandatory face mask rules in these settings are challenging and may cause undue stress for very young children.
As a result, it says they are not recommended at primary level or in pre-schools. However, they are advised at second level unless there is a good reason not to do so.
This guidance is based on a review conducted by public health experts at the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
By contrast, academics who are part of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group say primary schoolchildren should wear masks given that high case numbers are concentrated among unvaccinated younger people.
The zero-Covid group says children will be at a higher risk to the virus than ever before when they begin return to classrooms over the coming weeks.
Masks for teachers?
Dr Gabriel Scally, a public health expert and member of the group, said other jurisdictions such as the US were recommending face masks for younger children. There was no reason why this could not happen here if there was an organised effort to supply schools with them, he said.
A webinar organised by the group on Wednesday heard calls for high-quality masks for teachers and pupils across all schools along with medical-grade air filtration systems and increasing social distancing requirements.
These steps were needed, the group said, because schools are set to reopen at a time when case numbers are high combined with comparatively light restrictions.
Physicist and pandemic expert Prof Yaneer Bar-Yam told the webinar that latest figures in Israel show children are now the main drivers of Covid-19 cases. And these have jumped from 10 cases a day to between 8,000-9,000 in the space of a few months.
In response, he said education authorities are considering postponing the reopening of school by a month from September until October.
Orla Hegarty, an architect and assistant professor at UCD, said ventilation of schools was crucial and welcomed the planned introduction of carbon dioxide monitors to classrooms.
However, she said the broader picture was “not good” given that schools are reopening against the backdrop of rising case numbers and a variant which is twice as transmissable.
She said ordinary ventilation of classrooms “is not going to be enough”. And there is a need for high quality air filters to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19.
“We’re talking about a million child going back to schools over the next two weeks . . . very few will be double vaccinated, so there’s a huge unvaccinated population going into high risk settings,” she said.
“I’d like to see an assessment of the school risk. Is it safe to go back? I have serious concerns over what the next month will bring.”
Department of Education guidance on school reopening, meanwhile, provides updated guidance on safety measures needed to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid-19.
Schools will be required to continue operating last year’s infection prevention and control measures such as social distancing, hand sanitising and ventilation of classrooms. Funding will be provided to schools for these measures.
On ventilation, the guidance states that all school classrooms will be supplied with carbon dioxide monitors, which the department says can play a part in providing a general indication when rooms may not be adequately ventilated.
Public health authorities say evidence available from the operation of schools to date shows they are low-risk environments due to infection prevention and control measures.
They have advised that new variants of the disease do not change existing safety steps such as physical distancing, isolation of positive cases along with contact tracing and mass testing of close contacts.