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File photo of a white FFP2, KN95 mask. Shutterstock/danielmarin

INTO clarifies that teachers won't automatically be given medical-grade face masks for classrooms

Teachers will have to request the masks from their school’s board of management to obtain them.

A TEACHERS’ UNION has clarified that the Department of Education won’t be automatically providing medical-grade face masks to teachers, after earlier confusion.

The INTO said last night that the Department of Education had agreed to provide medical-grade masks to teachers, following talks on public health measures for the reopening of schools tomorrow.

There were subsequent questions about when the Department would do this, but the primary-school teachers’ union clarified today that the masks are to be acquired by schools using their Covid-19 capitation funding, meaning teachers will need to request them from their schools’ board of management.

Following talks held yesterday between the Minister for Education Norma Foley, Department officials, teacher unions, school management and parent representatives, the INTO released a statement detailing what had been agreed.

It said that it had secured additional measures from the Department of Education to open schools, including the provision of medical-grade face masks.

Medical-grade face masks usually include the N95 and FFP2 face masks.

The union said in a statement on its site that the Government had “finally agreed to provide teachers with the protection of medical grade face masks. The Department of Education must ensure adequate supplies of this type of face mask are made available to schools.”

Teachers have been calling on the Department to provide them with medical-grade face masks since the return of schools after the first lockdown in the spring of 2020.

Schools are due to open tomorrow for the first time after the Christmas break, amid the Omicron wave that has seen record numbers of daily Covid-19 cases that are on the worst-case scenario end of the scale of what NPHET predicted before the festive season.

There are concerns that thousands of teachers across the country could be absent from classrooms due to contracting Covid-19 or close contact rules that mean they need to restrict their movements for five or 10 days, depending on whether they have received a booster shot.

This could result in classes being merged or sent home for the day.

In an interview on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland today, the Minister of Education was asked about when these medical-grade masks would be made available to teachers.

Minister Foley said that “Public Health were of a view, and are of a view, that the measures that are currently in place are sufficient”.

“Yet again yesterday, the unions have asked Public Health to take one more look at the issue of face masks, and public health said they will do that.

They’re satisfied currently with the measure, but because they’ve [been] asked for another review, they will review it. And if Public Health come back with a recommendation that a new type of mask is required, then we absolutely will implement it and support it.

In response to this the INTO said on Twitter that after the minister’s comments, they sought clarification from the Department and were told that if a teacher wants an FFP2 face mask, schools can use Covid capitation funding to provide these to staff.

“We encourage any member who wishes to use such a mask to request one from their boards of management,” the union said.

The ASTI’s General Secretary Kieran Christie told Newstalk Breakfast today that there was “enormous unease” among their members regarding their safety and the safety of students amid the Omicron wave.

“It wasn’t the dominant strain before Christmas and there is understandable concern around that,” he said, adding that they accepted the public health advice.

Christie said that the ASTI had requested that medical-grade face masks be made a requirement in school settings instead of reusable cloth masks, but that hadn’t been agreed to during yesterday’s talks with the Department of Education.

Current rules are that children in third class and upwards are advised to wear face coverings until at least February 2022, when it is due for review.

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