Minister for Education Norma Foley has defended the manner in which new public health measures for children came into effect, as principals and opposition politicians criticised the short notice given to schools to implement the new guidelines.
From Wednesday, pupils from third class upwards are required to wear face masks in schools, with exemptions for children who can provide a medical certificate.
Children aged nine and over are also required to wear masks on public transport and in retail and other indoor public settings under the new Government guidelines.
The new measures for children were announced on Tuesday evening and came into effect on Wednesday morning.
They were implemented as a result of the high incidence of Covid-19 in that age group, which has not yet been vaccinated.
Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday morning, the Minister said the measure was being introduced on a temporary basis and is subject to review in mid-February.
“This is a public health measure, it is guided by public health. It is the strong recommendation of the CMO and, indeed, of Nphet that this is an additional tool for our schools,” the Minister said.
Ms Foley said schools “know their children and are best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face masks may not be possible for them”.
She said it is expected that schools will take a practical approach over the next day or two in order to communicate the new measures to parents and ensure parents have the opportunity to provide masks to children.
Following that, children who do not comply with the rules on mask-wearing will be sent home.
Ms Foley was responding to Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who said school principals were on Wednesday morning having to police the wearing of face masks without any lead-up period or "any sense of what the legal implications are if a parent was to refuse".
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the new requirement of children to wear masks is not a place he is “entirely 100 per cent comfortable with, as a human, as a person, as a parent, as a former teacher myself” and said “common sense” was needed when implementing the measure.
Dr Mary Favier, the Covid-19 advisor for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), said GPs do not have the capacity to issue exemptions letters for pupils.
She added that there was no medical reasoning behind them, and the issue of who should or should not wear masks should be a decision for within the school community.
"General practice is just too busy. We're doing too many other things as well. We're overwhelmed with all of the Covid and non-Covid care," she told RTÉ Radio One.
Meanwhile, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan appealed to parents to follow the new public health measures. He urged parents to reduce social contact between now and the Christmas break.
In a letter to parents, Dr Holohan said there had been significant and rapid deterioration in the epidemiological situation over a very short time. He said schools are “at the heart of our communities” and play a “fundamental role in the social lives and wellbeing of our children”.
“It is therefore imperative that we move quickly as soon as we notice a significant change in incidence,” he wrote.
Dr Holohan outlined the new recommendations around avoiding indoor birthday parties, playdates and sleepovers, and indoor community gatherings. He also outlined the updated advice to parents.
“I am keenly aware that these measures are not what any of us want to hear, particularly at this time of year. I know this is an additional burden at what has been a very difficult time for all of us, particularly those of us with young families,” he said.
“That being said, parents have a key role to play in reducing transmission within and between households.”
Dr Holohan said when incidence of disease is as high as it is currently, the “force of infection is pushed down through the unvaccinated population and into our unvaccinated young children”.
“I am hopeful that if we all make a concerted effort to follow these measures for at least the next two weeks, we can make a real difference to incidence of disease in this cohort and in the wider public,” he added.
Parentline, a charity helpline for parents, said it had received a deluge of calls in recent days from parents who are concerned about the impact of the new restrictions on their children “developmentally and emotionally”.
Brian O’Doherty, president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, said he expected high compliance with the rule but acknowledged it would likely be an emotive topic.
“At the heart of this are very young children and the notion of refusing children attendance at school absolutely flies in the face of everything,” he said.
Trade union Fórsa said it supports the use of face masks in schools but that the Government’s rush to implement the measure will make it more difficult to achieve.
"The measure shouldn't have been implemented overnight with no time to build consensus or explain the requirements to students, parents and staff," said the union's head of education, Andy Pike.