The Taoiseach has said the requirement that primary school children wear masks is not a rule he is “entirely 100 per cent 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.
On Tuesday evening, the Government asked schools to ensure that children in third class and above wear masks in primary schools and on school transport.
Children who can provide a medical certificate are exempt.
Children over the age of nine are also required to wear face masks in retail and other indoor settings in the new guidelines.
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 per cent 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.”
Mr Kelly asked whether school principals and boards of management will be legally protected when enforcing the wearing of face masks.
He said that children have a constitutional right to education and queried what legal protection schools would have to refuse children entry if they are not wearing masks.
“What is the legal basis for it and have you guaranteed that principals are legally protected here?” Mr Kelly asked. “If they refuse entry of a kid into school, are they legally protected by this state? Because I know that the PDF that went out had no signature on it and wasn’t on headed paper.”
Mr Martin said: “In the middle of a global pandemic, where school principals and management are applying public health policy, they will be protected.”
Mr Kelly also criticised the Government for how it communicated the new policy.
He said: “Surely there should have been a communications process whereby principals are engaged, unions are engaged with, and also children are engaged.
“There’s a huge difference from a development point of view between a nine-year-old and a 15-year-old. This can’t just happen overnight, and that’s what’s been asked.
“I understand the Minister has now clarified that there are a couple of days grace, but ultimately this is mandatory and that is fine, but the communications process around it is frankly diabolical.
“Principals are left this morning at school gates wondering what they’re meant to do.”
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.”