‘We’re looking forward to seeing their faces again’: Schools ready to end mask-wearing

Public health experts advise easing of Covid rules as teachers’ unions urge caution

Mark Boobbyer, warden of St Columba’s College in Dublin, is counting down the days until students can take their masks off.

“We’re desperate to see their faces – we haven’t seen them in so long,” he says.

“Our teachers will tell you that masks make such a big difference. They’re a barrier to communication in class. Students are less likely to get involved.”

Of even greater significance, he says, is a full return to school activity.

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“We haven’t been able to have whole-school assemblies for two years. I worry that the restrictions have led to a fracturing of community. We’ve really missed the school concert, the house singing competition and assemblies and full chapel services... We can’t wait to get back to normal.”

The school, and thousands of others, may not have to wait long. The National Public Health Emergency Team is understood to have agreed that the requirement to wear masks in schools should end.

If accepted by Government, it is likely masks will no longer be required in classrooms when schools return following the mid-term break on February 28th.

It may also give the green light for the resumption of school activities such as concerts, plays, choirs and in-person parent-teacher meetings.

However, teachers’ unions and school managers are urging a more gradual relaxation to risk-mitigation measures.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has called for a “pragmatic and cautious” approach to any changes to public health mitigation measures in schools.

“We have sought assurances that infection prevention and control measures would remain in place in both primary and special schools for the 28 school days between the mid-term break and the Easter holidays, at the very least,” an INTO spokesman said.

“We have also set out our concern at the challenging situation in schools in recent weeks, despite these measures still being in place.”

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) also urged caution and warned that a sudden relaxation of measures could disrupt preparation for the junior cycle and Leaving Cert exams.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said thousands of exam-year students are facing into oral, practical and project work deadlines over the coming weeks.

“If we stop everything all of a sudden, there is a risk that we’ll have lots of students and teachers missing. We’re urging a cautious approach,” he said.

“We’re not calling for masks to be retained indefinitely, but we know that the measures we’ve had in place have managed to keep the number of cases below those in the wider community.”

The two main school principals’ representative groups said they will be guided by whatever public health measures are announced.

Páiric Clerkin of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) said public health advice has guided schools in the past and "it's important that we follow the science", while Paul Crone of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals said school leaders will implement whatever changes are recommended.

Some individual principals, meanwhile, are looking forward to a full resumption of school activities.

Matt Melvin, principal of St Etchen's National School in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, said: "We've missed seeing our pupils' smiles... It will be fantastic to get back to sport, drama, art and music. It is so much part of the wider cultural and co-curricular experience."