Principals in ‘a very difficult situation’ since masks introduced for Third to Six Class pupils
THE announcement of mandatory masks for school children in Third Class and above had been expected in response to soaring Covid infections among 5- to 12-year-olds. However, the announcement still caused a degree of confusion among parents, and resistance among some.
The news of the impending change first came to light on Friday, November 26, when the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommended the indoor wearing of face-coverings for older primary school students. The policy was not officially adopted until five days later. Schools, parents and teachers, however, were not given similar notice.
Shortly before 6pm last Tuesday evening, principals received a memo from the Department of Education that masks were to be worn by Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Class students the following day.
School principal and INTO Central Executive Council member Vincent Duffy described the communication from the department as ‘very blunt’.
“It wasn’t a very conciliatory tone, it was actually quite aggressive to be honest with you,” Mr Duffy told The Mayo News.
“A good few principals from around Mayo and Sligo contacted me and said they were very annoyed about the timing of it and the manner in which it was done,” added Mr Duffy, who is principal of Breaffy National School in Ballina.
The withdrawal of contact tracing in schools in September and the introduction of antigen testing in outbreak settings has left school principals doing much of the work formerly done by public health.
The INTO had been calling for NPHET to review the issue of mask-wearing for primary school children. However, the mandatory nature of the measure has left some principals in what Vincent Duffy describes as ‘an unenviable position’.
New advice to schools was issued by the Department of Education yesterday (Monday) morning, in a bid to help clarify the situation for teachers and pupils.
It states that children in Third Class and above should not be excluded from schools ‘in the first instance’ for not wearing masks.
Instead, it asserts, a school should engage with a child’s parents and, if progress cannot be made, then an inspector from the Department of Education will be contacted.
The new guidance also states that where a school agrees with parents that a mask is not appropriate for the child, medical certification not required for an exemption. “It should also be noted that where a school is aware, having consulted with the parent/guardian that a child’s needs are such that mask-wearing is not appropriate, no medical certification is needed,” the advisory reads.
The Government has also said that visors should be considered where face masks impede communication for pupils with a hearing impairment.
Its guidance says that pupils with difficulty breathing or another relevant medical condition are exempt from wearing face masks. Also exempt are children who are unable to remove the cloth face covering or visor without assistance, children who have special needs or intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, sensory concerns or tactile sensitivity.
While exemptions can be granted to these students, Mr Duffy says that principals could run into difficulties with parents who simply refuse to allow their child to wear a mask.
“It has left a number of principals in a very difficult situation where if parents decide their child is not going to wear a mask. Will they have to refuse entry to school?
“Not only that, is there a legal basis to it? Micheál Martin says there is, but it’s not on a statutory basis, so I have my doubts.
“I feel the vast majority of parents will be compliant, but it has left principals, in particular, in a very difficult situation.”
With an unseasonably mild autumn giving way to the chill of winter, ventilation in schools and classrooms is also becoming increasingly difficult.
“This nonsense that the Minister [for Education] and some public health people were going on with that [school] was a safe environment has been proven absolutely totally wrong,” says Vincent Duffy.
“Now [ventilation] is getting more difficult because you could have the heat on the whole day but if the windows are fully open, the heat is going out the window. The last thing you want is children picking up bad colds and flus going into the Christmas, so that’s definitely an issue.”
While the long-term negative effects on children are unlikely to be known for many years, Mr Duffy insists that children ‘will bounce back’ from the pandemic.
“There has been a lot of trauma in their lives, but never underestimate children. Children are very resilient, and children bounce back,” he says.
“I have seen it in the school … when they came back in March it was a long time to be off, but to be back with their friends again has made an awful difference.”
The public’s well-documented frustration over Government communication and mixed messaging may have served to worsen an already stressful situation.
On the morning the national-school mask-wearing measure came into effect, Education Minister Norma Foley declared that students who refused to comply would be sent home.
One GP then tweeted to the minster that overworked medics would not be providing medical certs for parents who sought an exemption for their child.
Last Wednesday evening, Taoiseach Micháel Martin stated that he was ‘not entirely comfortable’ with mandatory mask wearing for younger children.
While anger at unclear messaging from Government has been growing, the scientists have been struggling to provide clarity.
While mask-wearing by all primary school students is recommended by the American and European Centres for Disease Control, opinions vary among some eminent Irish scientists.
Members of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group called for children to wear high-quality FF-P2 face masks back in September. Likewise, immunology professors Luke O’Neill and Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin have spoken in favour of mask-wearing for children.
Infectious disease expert Professor Sam McConkey recently said that there was insufficient ‘powerful’ evidence to support masking primary school students. However, he doesn’t believe it is wrong to advise children to wear masks with the Covid-19 pandemic worsening once again, though he did say he hopes it is enforced in ‘a gentle, non forceful, non confrontational way.’
Part of the confusion among parents may lie in the fact that Nphet’s advice has changed. Minutes from its meeting on April 8, 2021 – shortly after the phased return of in-person teaching – stated: “Any additional benefit associated with requiring children to wear face masks in this context is likely to be small.”
However, that observation was made when the Alpha variant was still the dominant strain of Covid-19 in the country. Since then, the significantly more infectious Delta variant has taken over. This may yet be overtaken by the even more infectious Omicron.