Children in third class and above have to wear masks in school from today onwards.
New Department of Education guidelines state a medical cert is required for an exemption, and those without evidence will be refused entry.
The Government is also calling for less indoor socialising among under-12s for the next two weeks, after a sharp increase in Covid cases.
There were over 18,200 cases among under-18s in the fortnight to Sunday - compared to just over 13,700 in the previous two weeks.
The new guidelines are not set out in law, so children will not be committing an offence by not wearing a mask. However, like the public health guidelines for masks in secondary schools, primary schools are being instructed to enforce them.
The rules, which come into effect on Wednesday, come after the Government accepted National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice on pupils from third class upwards wearing face masks.
Children aged nine-plus will also be required to wear face masks on public transport, in retail and other indoor public settings. This was already in place for children aged 13 and over.
The measure has been brought in on a temporary basis and will be reviewed in February 2022.
Exemptions, which require a medical cert, include the following:
- Any pupil with difficulty breathing or other relevant medical conditions.
- Any pupil who is unable to remove the cloth face covering or visor without assistance.
- Any pupil who has special needs and who may feel upset or very uncomfortable wearing the cloth face covering or visor, for example, pupils with intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, sensory concerns or tactile sensitivity.
Minister for Education Norma Foley said: "If you provide a medical certificate explaining the situation regarding your child, obviously they will be exempted, but if you do not do that, there has to be clarity around this, it has to be operational. It is a safety measure, and that will be the scenario that students who do not comply and do not have a medical basis will be asked to stand down from school."
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, the Minister 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” 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.
Ms Foley 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".
When asked if schools would reopen after Christmas, the Minister said 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. The CMO had asked “wider society” to reduce their socialising.
There needed to be “absolute clarity” about how schools operate the masks requirement, that had been provided, she said. This was one measure in a suite of public health measures to limit infections in schools, she explained.
This is a measure that protects all.
Children who did not comply would be sent home, she said. 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.”
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Parentline has told of the deluge of calls received by the service in recent days from parents concerned about the impact of new restrictions on their children “developmentally and emotionally”.
Aileen Hickie told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland 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.
While the new measures for children were guidelines and school principals did have discretion for cases of complex concern, Ms Hickie said that “once again” the responsibility was on parents to ensure their child wore a mask. She 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 about the letter from the CMO to parents which called on parents to halt social activities, Ms Hickie said that parents were now being required to play the role of “social police” for their children.
Parents knew they had to “go with their own gut” and that they knew what was right and what was wrong, they would “lead from the front".
However, she added that families were not going to “drop everything”, but they would prioritise. - Additional reporting from Vivienne Clarke