Teachers and parents support the wearing of masks by older primary schoolchildren, while the children themselves are evenly split on the experience, research commissioned by the National Public Health Emergency Team shows.
A requirement for children aged nine to 12 to wear masks in the classroom was introduced in November and is being dropped from Monday, along with the requirement for secondary students to wear masks.
The incidence of Covid-19 fell slightly following the introduction of a mask requirement for third class upwards in primary schools on November 30th, but cases then soared as the more transmissible Omicron variant spread.
However, with far fewer Omicron cases resulting in hospitalisation, the Government has eased virtually all pandemic restrictions. Masks are still advised on public transport and in healthcare settings but are optional from today in the education sector.
Three primary schools – one urban, one suburban and one rural – were surveyed for the research. Some 38 per cent of nine to 12-year-olds said they were happy to continue wearing masks, while another 7 per cent were in favour but for reasons such as protecting others. Almost 46 per cent said they wanted to stop wearing masks.
Describing the children’s answers as “divided, nuanced and qualified”, the report said some added practical suggestions they would like to happen while wearing masks, while others qualified their willingness to continue wearing masks with requests for more mask breaks, or more mixing of pods.
The researchers also talked to a cross-section of teachers from the schools. Generally, they reported that mask-wearing had gone more smoothly than expected, with some upsides, such as children feeling included and playing their part.
“They also noted that general Covid measures such as social distancing and the use of pods in the classroom have had a far greater impact on children’s physical, emotional, social and educational development than masks but that the longer-term impact on social cohesion and learning progress for English as a second language or quieter students is not enough to support continuing with the mask-wearing.”
A majority of parents have supported the measure since it was introduced. However, the proportion of parents who felt mask-wearing by children aged nine to 12 was appropriate fell from 65 per cent in December to 56 per cent in mid-February. By that stage, 39 per cent felt the measure was not appropriate.
Seventy per cent of parents said their child had adapted well to the mask-wearing requirement.
Cases peaked in those aged nine to 11 with the reopening of schools in January, according to the research conducted for Nphet, while this peak occurred later in those aged three to eight years.
“While the introduction of face coverings for those aged nine to 11 years may have reduced incidence in this age group, the main determinant of incidence is the incidence in the wider population,” the research states.
By mid-February, Covid-19 vaccine uptake ranged from 15.6 per cent in those aged five to 31.4 per cent in those aged 11.
From Monday, physical distancing measures in schools, such as pods and staggered breaks, will also end, while testing and tracing is being scaled back.
A PCR test is henceforth only recommended for certain symptomatic people, including those aged over 55, those with a high-risk medical condition and those who are immunocompromised.
For everyone else, the public health advice is still to self-isolate until 48 hours after symptoms resolve, with no PCR requirement.
Close contacts with no symptoms no longer need a test, unless they are a healthcare worker who is a household close contact.
There is no change to the measures governing international travel, including the requirement for a digital Covid certificate.