The Taoiseach has said the requirement that primary school children wear masks is not a rule he is “entirely 100% comfortable with”.
Micheál Martin said the new rules are “challenging” but there has to be “common sense, discretion and practical approach” applied to the requirements.
The Education Minister has been forced to defend new rules on mask-wearing for primary school children, during an angry exchange in the Dáil.
Norma Foley also said there will be some “latitude” in the coming days, as schools start to deal with the new requirements.
Children over the age of nine or in third class are required to wear masks in school, on public transport or in retail settings.
Mr Martin was challenged by Labour leader Alan Kelly over the legal enforcement of the new regulations.
“It is challenging, deputy. I appreciate that. It’s not a place I am entirely 100% comfortable with, as a person, as a parent, and as a former teacher myself,” Mr Martin said.
“I’m very much alive to different situations in different schools. We have to be sensitive to all of that.”
Ms Foley faced questions from Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in the Dáil on Wednesday morning, hours after the Government asked schools to ensure that children in third class and above wear masks in primary schools and on school transport.
Mr Ó Ríordáin blasted Ms Foley for what he labelled a lack of leadership that he said has left school principals scrambling to prepare for a new “overnight diktat”.
“I think it’s fair to say that school communities around Ireland are this morning grappling with another chaotic management of messaging and leadership from your department,” he told her.
He said the Government and health officials have insisted that “schools are safe”, only for new advice to be suddenly issued on mask-wearing.
“We get an overnight diktat from the Department of Education delivered with all the subtlety, compassion, of a gas bill.
“And this morning principals have to police the mask-wearing of nine-year-olds and up, third class and up, without any sense of what the legal implications are if a parent was to refuse, with no sense of a lead-in period, and with an absolute absence of commentary, guidance or leadership from yourself.”
“All we needed last night was some kind of video message or some kind of a communication from the political leader of education in Ireland to say we know this is a change, we know this is difficult.”
Instead, he said, schools and parents received a “classic, soulless communication” from the department.
Under the new rules, exemptions will be made for children with breathing difficulties or other relevant medical conditions, those unable to remove face coverings without assistance, or those with special needs who may feel uncomfortable wearing face coverings.
“Schools will be best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face coverings may not be possible for them, and to discuss this with parents as required,” guidelines issued by the Department of Education on Tuesday night said.
“In such circumstances a school may not require medical certification to provide an exemption to the wearing of face coverings.” However, the guidelines say that, in other circumstances, staff and pupils who do not wear masks and do not have a valid medical certificate “will be refused entry to the school”.
Mr Martin said that school management will know their community and how to engage with their community.
“Obviously, in terms of special needs children there won’t be a requirement if it is not suitable,” Mr Martin added.
“I think there has to be common sense, discretion, practical approach to this.
“I think in the main there will be. Overall, we have to look at this as a collective society.”
In the Dáil on Wednesday morning, Ms Foley said her department is following the public health advice and thanked schools and principals again for their work during the pandemic.
She said the measure will be reviewed in February 2022.
“Schools have been provided with guidance and with information for parents and children,” she told the Dáil.
“It is expected that schools as usual will take a practical approach over the next day or two, as has been communicated, in order to communicate the new measures to parents and ensure parents have the opportunity to provide masks to children.
“I’m very conscious that the decision was taken yesterday, but schools have been given the latitude over the next number of days to engage with parents, to engage with students in relation to the wearing of face masks.”
That response was rebuked by Mr O Riordain, who said schools had been given just 16 hours to prepare for the new rules.
“You can’t stand here and tell us when it’s a public health measure and sure that that’s just the way it goes,” he said.
“It’s a practical approach over the next day or two. What kind of leadership is that? What kind of certainty is that?” he asked.
“What happens if somebody comes to the school gates, flatly refuses for the child to have a mask? What does the principal do then? Do you know?”
The Labour TD urged the minister: “Take the opportunity, show some leadership, give some guidance to schools and school communities and actually give some guidance to principals who are doing their best to deal with anxious children who you, I have to submit, have let down in this regard because what they needed last night was a voice of compassion and care and leadership from the political face of education in Ireland.”
Ms Foley said schools can take a “flexible” approach in the coming days.
“We are asking parents to co-operate, as they have done magnificently up to this point, and I have no doubt that they will do so going forward.
“It is operating seamlessly at second level. This is the mirror reflection of a measure that is regarded by public health as a public health measure.”
Earlier, the Minister for Education toldthat children who do not comply with mask-wearing rules will be sent home.
When asked if online schooling would be available to them Ms Foley said “education is available in a school setting.”
The measures were to protect children individually and collectively and to protect school communities, she said.
“This is a measure that protects all.”
She said that there needed to be “absolute clarity” about how schools operate the masks requirement, that had been provided. This was one measure in a suite of public health measures to limit infections in schools, she explained.
Ms Foley has advised parents of children over the age of nine years who wear glasses, that if they have problems with wearing masks, then they should go to their GP and get a medical cert.
She said that if a child had any difficulties wearing a mask, then they should be evaluated by their GP.
“Every parent knows their child best”, she said and if their child had a specific issue, such as glasses, then they should discuss it with their GP, who would be in a position to give expert opinion and provide a medical cert for the school.
The Minister said that the “singular priority” was that schools should remain open, but that everyone had to abide by restrictions so that “the pressure could come off.”
Speaking to RTÉ radio earlier, the chief executive of Parentline said that the new measures for children were guidelines and school principals did have discretion for cases of complex concern.
Aileen Hickie said that parents understood the importance of keeping schools open and that Covid was spreading rapidly and of the need to stem outbreaks, but they were concerned about developmental outcomes especially for children with hearing difficulties or with special needs.
She added that “once again” the responsibility was on parents to ensure their child wore a mask.
Ms Hickie pointed out the difficulties parents already had getting children to wear gloves and scarves so getting them to wear masks could be even more problematic.
When asked if schools would reopen after Christmas, the Education Minister she did not have a crystal ball, but that if people continued to reduce socialisation and to abide by public health measures then schools should be able to reopen.
Ms Foley denied that the Taoiseach and chief medical officer were giving mixed messages to the public. The message from the CMO had been clear that everyone should reduce socialisation, the Taoiseach had echoed the same message, she said.
This had been a consistent message, she added. It now included younger children. Dr Tony Holohan had asked “wider society” to reduce their socialising.