Despite Tuesday night’s “shock” announcement to make mask-wearing compulsory for third class and above in primary schools, children streamed out happily from Ballintemple National School in Cork, seemingly oblivious to the last-minute rush to organise the day.
Laughing and chatting as they walked out the gates to their masked parents, their first day at school under the new guidelines was smoothed over by teachers who allayed any fears and brought them outside every 45 minutes for extra breaks in the yard.
A Government announcement on Tuesday night called for all children aged nine and above to wear masks in indoor public places, including public transport and retail, and for those in third class and above to wear masks in school. The move was driven by a high incidence rate of Covid in those aged five-11.
Education Minister Norma Foley said although some “latitude” would be allowed over the coming days, ultimately, children would be turned away at the school gate if they refused to wear a mask and did not have a medical certificate for not doing so.
All pupils at Ballintemple National School on Crab Lane, Cork, complied with the new health measures.
Elizabeth Dollard, a retired medical doctor, bought masks for her nine-year-old grandson before collecting him from school.
She said the news was very sudden and people should have been given more time to prepare.
"It seems to be more about protecting older people than children and children have already had a difficult time."
Leigh McCarthy was also collecting her children, who had to wear masks in school for the first time.
“It’s probably the safest option for now, although it's not ideal,” Ms McCarthy said.
“Once they see other children wearing masks it will just become normal.”
Another mum said the new mask rules were "a little shock to the system"
"The kids have had so much to deal with it’s hard to introduce something new all of a sudden. For them, it feels quite sudden. If they’re ok with it, I’m ok with it. But if it stresses them out, then it might be counterproductive. We’ll see what the end result is."
Bryan McCarthy, principal of Ballintemple National School said the first day operating under new guidelines went “very well” despite the last-minute notification which came through via email as he was eating dinner at home on Tuesday night.
“We got a message from the Department of Education at roughly 5.20pm that the guidelines regarding face masks were coming in today. We had a school management meeting last night at 8pm.
"There was a little bit of anxiety with some kids around wearing them. We reiterated that it’s new for everyone and not to be too anxious or worried about it and to just do our best.
"Teachers have been taking the kids out every 45 minutes to allow them a break.
"We want it to be as manageable as possible for the kids so they don’t feel any anxiety around it.
"It would be great if we could get more notice and not get our emails from the Department of Education in the evening. It would make life a lot less stressful for everyone.
"A lot of notifications we get from the Department are in the evening, outside of school hours. Emails at 8pm are not ideal.
"But the kids have been fantastic, they did their best."
Páiric Clerkin, chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals' Network, called for direct access to public health for schools.
"Principals cannot connect directly with public health to seek advice. This is putting school communities under strain," he said.
"It’s very important that there’s a direct line that schools can seek guidance and support from public health. But it's taking a long time to reach public health and get advice when they need it."
He said the sudden nature of Tuesday's "shock" notification about the new guidelines made “a difficult situation nearly impossible.”
“This would have put a lot of pressure on school principals very late at night. It would have put a lot of pressure on parents, trying to organise masks for children.
"We’re dealing with very young children. A lead-in time is really important."