Primary schools report face mask compliance rates of 90-100%

Focus will be on ‘encouragement rather than enforcement’, says principals’ group head

The National Parents Council Primary has called for flexibility around the enforcement of the new mask wearing rules. Photograph: Bryan O Brien/The Irish Times

The National Parents Council Primary has called for flexibility around the enforcement of the new mask wearing rules. Photograph: Bryan O Brien/The Irish Times

 

Primary schools have reported high compliance rates of between 90 and 100 per cent on the first day of new rules which require pupils in third class upwards to wear face masks.

While media and political commentary focused on guidelines which state that unmasked children without exemptions may be refused access to schools, principals said the new rules went smoothly.

Brian O’Connor, president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, said: “The vast majority of pupils are wearing them. We anticipated high levels of compliance. That has been our experience ever since we had to introduce safety measures into our schools.”

While there may be challenges with a small minority of parents who do not follow public health guidelines, Mr O’Connor said the focus of schools will be on “encouragement rather than enforcement”.

“Refusing entry to children in school flies in the face of what we’re about. I think principals were thrown by the Department of Education information note which stated that the rules are a requirement rather than advisory,” he said

“We’ve since been heard there will be a measure of discretion offered to schools. Primary teachers know their pupils really well and will be aware of sensitivities individual circumstances and where anxiety may be a big factor.”

‘Common sense’

In the Dáil on Wednesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there has to be “common sense, discretion and a practical approach” when implementing the measures which came into effect on Wednesday morning.

Responding to questions from Labour leader Alan Kelly in the Dáil on Wednesday regarding whether principals and boards of management would be legally protected implementing the wearing of face masks, Mr Martin said where they are applying public health policy they will be “protected definitely”.

Mr Martin said there had to be a societal response because of the high incidence of Covid-19 in the community. He said the current situation, including children at primary level being required to wear masks was “challenging”.

“It’s not a place I’m entirely 100 per cent comfortable with, as a human, as a person, as a parent, as a former teacher myself,” Mr Martin said.

“I’m very much alive to the different situations that can apply in different schools and different localities, different backgrounds and so on and we have to be sensitive to that.”

Mr Kelly said there was “a plethora of confusion” in relation to children from third class being required to wear face masks and that communications around it was “nothing short of diabolical”.

He said it took the Government five days to make a decision on the matter but schools were give 16 hours.

“Principals were left at school gates this morning, wondering what they’re meant to do and the same tomorrow,” he said.

Flexibility

The National Parents Council Primary has called for flexibility around the enforcement of the new rules.

Áine Lynch, the council’s chief executive, said the 95 per cent of the thousands of messages it had received from parents over recent days were opposed to the mandatory wearing of face masks.

“The worry is that this becomes a very divisive issue and difficult for schools to manage. We’re calling for flexibility and for the rules to be advisory rather than mandatory.”

Minister for Education Norma Foley, meanwhile, defended the manner in which new public health measures for children came into effect

“This is a public health measure, it is guided by public health. It is the strong recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer and, indeed, of the National Public Health Emergency Team that this is an additional tool for our schools,” the Minister said.

She was responding to Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who accused the Minister of “chaotic management” of the new rules .