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School principal: 'Consideration must be given to children when it comes to face masks in classrooms'

One school principal writes about their take on the latest advice that children from third class must wear face masks.

Anonymous School Principal

Updated Dec 1st 2021, 4:45 PM

YESTERDAY EVENING, AT 5.15pm, primary schools around the country received updated guidance from the Department of Education on the wearing of face coverings in primary schools.

This guidance was followed up by a letter to parents/guardians from Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer explaining the updated public health advice. Children from third class upwards are recommended to wear face coverings now in schools.

It seems that there is considerable concern around the incidence rate of Covid-19 in the 5-11-year-old age group. These kids are generally our primary school students. At our rural school, in the last three weeks we have seen our very first school related case since all of this began, followed swiftly by a number of cases in that pod and classroom.

How we got here

Although guidance on face coverings for primary school children was only just released yesterday, the discussions around such protocols have been ongoing amongst staff members, parents, guardians and on social media for weeks.

It is hard to argue with the need for some intervention in schools. It is well documented that schools are facing huge challenges in relation to case numbers and staffing. This is a crisis. Parents are faced with keeping children at home for days at a time as PCR tests are like gold dust.

The wearing of face masks by primary school children from third class up is the latest intervention aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19. I don’t think that many school staff would question that something needs to be done to stop the spread. We need competent measures and guidelines.

I think that the recommendation that face coverings are worn by children in certain scenarios comes from a scientific place based on data and expertise and I trust that it will have some effect on the spread. I also think that consideration must be given to the children in all of this.

School refusal

If we spend too long looking at the data we can forget that these numbers represent children and staff members in our schools.

The latest guidance states that if a medical certificate is not provided to the school stating that a child does not fall into a certain category which would preclude them from wearing face coverings, then that child will be refused entry to the school.

No teacher in the country wants to refuse a child entry to a school. Psychologists working for the National Educational Psychological Service will have been inundated with concerns from principals this year around school refusal. School refusal is at an all-time high. Now is not a time to be refusing children entry to schools.

There are a number of interventions that could have been considered alongside a recommendation of wearing face coverings (without making it compulsory). Testing and tracing of close contacts in primary schools needs to resume. The introduction of antigen testing is a welcome measure but it is inadequate.

Current guidelines mean that if there is a case of Covid-19 in a classroom, nobody in that classroom is asked to isolate. Nobody is referred to contact tracing and testing. Parents can decide not to administer antigen tests and send their kids into school anyway.

‘Schools are safe’

Around the country parents are starting to recognise that schools are not the safe places they are being labelled and they are taking action. Kids are being kept home, regardless of guidelines, in an effort to keep everybody safe. In our school we have had two cases this week where children returned negative antigen test results followed by positive PCR results.

By introducing the wearing of face coverings for children we have changed the narrative. Measures seem to be in place to stop children from spreading the virus rather than to protect them from it. Children have enough on their young shoulders at the moment without loading them with this.

More consultation with the relevant parties is needed before drastic actions like this are introduced. Principals around the country are working around the clock contact tracing, emailing parents, sorting staffing issues, teaching and dealing with a million other things that I haven’t mentioned.

To send new guidelines at 5.15 pm on a Tuesday evening and expect them to be implemented on a Wednesday morning is not reasonable. This short time frame is not adequate for school staff to discuss all of the possible permutations.

What if a child wants to wear a face covering but their parent doesn’t allow it? What if one parent insists on the face covering but another is against the measure? What if the masks we have in school are too big for our junior infants? What about the child who struggles with hearing and relies on lip reading? Do we need a Speech and Language therapist to assess the long term issues this could cause? What about the child who is ostracised by his/her peers because they can’t wear a mask?

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Rumblings of these measures have been going on for weeks. In that time, school principals were not consulted once. We want to do what is best for the children. We want to keep everyone safe. We understand that measures have to be implemented.

We want more thought to be put into these guidelines and for the children to be at the centre of any decision making when it comes to guidelines.

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Anonymous School Principal

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