Primary school takes a lead on mask wearing for pupils

The Government will soon decide whether to accept NPHET's recommendation that primary school children from third class upwards wear masks – but one school in Co Meath has already taken matters into its own hands.

Julie Dowd, the school principal of Scoil Bhríde National School in Kilbride, told RTE's Prime Time's that recommending that its pupils wear masks was a desperate measure for desperate times.

Roughly one third of the school’s 333 pupils are currently absent from school – they are either sick with Covid or isolating as a close contact. Four staff members are also absent.

Prime Time's Oonagh Smyth reported that the school has had 37 positive cases, affecting eight classes in the past 10 days. It's perhaps no surprise that there’s been a relatively good uptake of mask wearing already.

"We would possibly have 50% in certain classes. In the senior classes, we would have quite a high take up. But if Government were to mandate it, I would imagine parents would take that very seriously," Ms Dowd said.

The move at Scoil Bhríde comes in light of new data from the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre showing that 5,374 Covid infections were detected in children aged 5 to 12 last week, up from 1,163 cases in the week before. That’s the highest increase of infection in any age group.

Parents in Scoil Bhríde are generally approving of any increase in mask wearing.

One woman picking up her Junior Infant child told Prime Time that she thought mask wearing would be manageable for her daughter.

"She wears one in the shops for me for a little while, but I think if she saw other children wearing it, it would encourage her to put one on, too," she said.

Another mother said she expected that it will be very burdensome for teachers to implement.

"It's more for the teachers – it’s probably going to be a bit of a struggle. But I would have absolutely no problem with it," she said.

"It beats sending them into school and potentially them catching something. So maybe it might help."

But another mum with two children at Scoil Bhríde was opposed to the idea.

She said that, given the vast majority of children experience mild Covid infections, the potential knock-on effects on their communication skills and socialisation may be too high a price to pay.

"I think it's a barrier for their education. It's a barrier for them socially. I think they're too young to understand that – I know an awful lot of time has been lost already to education," she said.

"And I don't see the benefits in young children to covering their faces. No. So I'd be very much against it."

On the question of having their primary school children vaccinated, parents had a harder time answering positively.

"I honestly don't know. If that was my choice, I’d take it, but forcing it on a child… I just, I don't know. The jury is still out on that to be honest with you," one father told Prime Time.

Another woman was also doubtful. "Vaccines for the rest of the population, for sure. But for now, a vaccine that's potentially needs to be given every six months – I'd be very apprehensive about that for my children," she said.

However, Ms Dowd said the transmissibility of the Delta variant has been an eye-opener for staff at her school, where there were only two cases in the previous academic year.

Ms Dowd said that if the Government makes masks mandatory, it’s simply a recognition of the trouble that schools are currently in.

"So we would be obviously strongly encouraging parents to take NPHET up on that advice," she said.