Primary school students will not be required to wear face coverings when they return to school in the coming weeks.
Despite pressure from some public health experts to introduce the measure, new guidance from the Department of Education says that it is not recommended that primary school children wear face coverings in the classroom.
The guidance also notes that wearing face coverings will not be expected of people with breathing difficulties or special needs.
According to the Covid-19 response plan for the safe and sustainable operation of primary and special schools, “the wearing of face coverings, or masks in general, is not a substitute for other measures”.
However, masks may be used, by staff, in addition to these protective measures, especially where maintaining social distancing is difficult.
These measures include physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, adequate ventilation, and minimising contacts.
The plan states that "it is known that children will have a lower tolerance and ability to use the face covering properly, and use of face coverings by teachers and staff caring for very young children may cause undue stress to the children”.
However, it is now a requirement for face coverings to be worn by staff members where it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of 2m from other staff, parents, essential visitors, and pupils.
It is advised that in certain situations the use of clear visors should be considered, for example, staff interacting with pupils with hearing difficulties or learning difficulties.
Schools must also provide medical-grade masks in the EN14683 category to all special needs assistants and teachers in special schools and special classes and those staff who need to be in close and continued proximity to pupils with intimate care needs, including school bus escorts.
The 45-page document, issued on Wednesday night, does not represent a significant change to the policies in place during the last school year. Among the provisions are:
- Each school will have a lead Covid representative to oversee protocols in the workplace;
- Signage and social distancing, introduced last year in the first return to school, will be used again;
- Schools are advised to take appropriate measures to minimise spread, including a request to not attend school if showing symptoms;
- Decreasing interaction between pupils is advised where possible but a "common-sense approach is required recognising the limits to which this can be achieved";
- Staff are advised to maintain physical distancing of 2m from each other, where possible.