School management boards who are administering public health policy ‘will be legally protected’ says Taoiseach amid school masks debate

The Taoiseach has insisted that the wearing of masks in primary schools will work out in a short period of time.

hallenged in the Dáil on the issue by Labour leader, Alan Kelly, Micheál Martin said everybody had to show some flexibility in the early phase of a new schools’ regime because the overall aim was to protect public health.

Mr Kelly said school principals were vulnerable to legal action if they barred children for not wearing school masks.

He said a notice about masks issued electronically to schools was not on official headed paper nor was it signed.

The Labour leader said children were obliged by law to attend school and being excluded over mask-wearing could impact attendance records and spark a High Court challenge.

“Will you defend a school principal in such cases?” Mr Kelly asked.

The Taoiseach said the principle of mask wearing had worked out well at post-primary school level and it would in time work well in primary schools. “Teachers, principals, and school management boards who are administering public health policy will be legally protected,” Mr Martin told the Dáil.

Meanwhile, the Government was accused of ‘soulless’ communication with schools on new mask wearing rules in a  Dáil exchange.

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin described the Government as a “bad debs committee” after it sent out a “dictat” to schools last night on the requirement for pupils in third class and up to wear masks from today.

He said that the advisory sent to schools from the Department of Education was “delivered with all the subtlety and compassion of a gas bill”.

“This morning principals have to police the mask wearing of nine year olds, of third class and up, without any sense of the legal implications are if the parent was to refuse.”

He added how there was an “absolute absence of commentary guidance or leadership” from Minister for Education Norma Foley and stressed how last night, there was a need for a “video message or communication from the political leader of education in “Ireland”

“We got a classic, souless, commmunication followed up by a communication from Nphet to each individual school,” he told the Dáil.

“You’ve been described as a government as a bad debs committee. That is the best description I can come up with this morning.”

He said there was “no leadership at all” from the minister last night

Minister Foley said that the new recommendations for mask wearing are “public health measures” guided by “public health”.

“It is the strong recommendation of the CMO and NPHET that this is an additional tool for our schools. The decision was taken yesterday but schools have been given the latitude over the coming days to engage with parents and students on the wearing of face masks.

“I confirm that this well-being approach is typical of the approach we have taken since the reopening of schools,” she said.

Minister Foley said that public health teams will support “outbreaks of concern” in schools.

She said that the Government are “very clear in the guidelines” and said that she knows schools as she has “spent the vast majority of my working life in schools”

“Do not give us that line. We have all worked in schools,” said Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

“I am aware that schools take a flexible approach. We have advised they take such an approach over the coming days,” she said.

The Labour TD said that schools were told that masks will be a “requirement” and “that is not flexibility.”

“Grandstanding on a matter of public health serves no good purpose,” said the Minister.

“For the love of God. If I hear that accusation one more time,”  Deputy Ó Ríordáin said in the heated exchange.

He also questioned why the Government and public health re-iterated that “schools are safe” numerous times during the pandemic, she said that schools are safe environments.

“The on-the-ground experience of public health doctors has been and remains that schools are relatively low-risk environments in terms of transmission and have not been a driver of transmission in children over the course of the pandemic,” the Minister said.

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