School management boards that administer public health policy ‘will be legally protected,’ Taoiseach says amid school mask debate
The Taoiseach insisted that mask-wearing in primary schools will work in a short time.
Asked in the Dáil about the issue by Labor leader Alan Kelly, Micheál Martin said everyone needed to show flexibility in the first phase of a new school system because the overall aim was to protect public health.
Mr Kelly said head teachers were vulnerable to legal action if they banned children from wearing school masks.
He said a notice about masks being issued electronically to schools was not on official letterhead or signed.
The Labor leader said children were required by law to attend school and being excluded for wearing a mask could impact attendance records and spark a challenge to the High Court.
“Will you defend a school principal in such cases?” asked Mr. Kelly.
The Taoiseach said the principle of mask-wearing had worked well at post-primary level and would work well over time in primary schools. “Teachers, principals and school management boards who administer public health policy will be legally protected,” Martin told the Dáil.
Meanwhile, the government has been accused of “soulless” communication with schools over new mask-wearing rules during a Dáil exchange.
Labor TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has described the government as a ‘committee of bad debts’ after it sent a ‘dictate’ to schools last night over the requirement for third class pupils and up to wear face masks from today.
He said the notice sent to schools by the Department for Education was ‘delivered with all the subtlety and compassion of a gas bill’.
“This morning, school principals are to control the wearing of masks by children aged nine, third grade and above, with no idea of the legal implications if the parent were to refuse.”
He added that there was an ‘absolute absence of comment or leadership’ from Education Minister Norma Foley and stressed how last night there was a need for a ‘video message or a communication from the political leader of education in “Ireland”.
“We had a classic, soulless communication, followed by communication from Nphet to each individual school,” he told the Dáil.
“You have been described as a government as a bad debt committee. That’s the best description I can give this morning.
He said there was ‘no leadership at all’ from the minister last night
Minister Foley said the new recommendations for mask-wearing are “public health measures” guided by “public health”.
“It is the strong recommendation of CMO and NPHET that this be an additional tool for our schools. The decision was made yesterday, but schools have been given the latitude over the next few days to engage with parents and students about wearing face masks.
“I confirm that this approach to well-being is typical of the approach we have taken since the reopening of schools,” she said.
Minister Foley said public health teams will deal with “outbreaks of concern” in schools.
She said the government was “very clear in the guidelines” and said she knew the schools because she had “spent the vast majority of my working life in the schools”.
“Don’t give us that line. We have all worked in schools,” MP Ó Ríordáin said.
“I am aware that schools take a flexible approach. We advised them to take such an approach over the next few days,” she said.
TD Labor said schools had been told masks would be a “requirement” and “it’s not flexibility”.
“Demagoguery on a public health issue is useless,” said the minister.
“For God’s sake. If I hear this accusation one more time,” MP Ó Ríordáin said in the heated exchange.
He also questioned why the government and public health reiterated that “schools are safe” repeatedly during the pandemic, she said schools are safe environments.
“The field experience of public health physicians 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 during the pandemic,” said the minister.