Nphet has recommended that children aged nine and over or from third class up, should wear face coverings in school and in other situations in which they are currently only required for adults – such as shops and public transport and in restaurants.
It is now up to the Government whether it will follow this advice or not, or make mask wearing for younger children mandatory or advisory.
While many countries require masks for secondary schools, only a handful of other EU member states, concentrated in southern Europe, have adopted mandatory mask mandates for primary schoolchildren.
Greece reacted to the potential spread of the coronavirus amongst schoolchildren early on during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020.
It brought in strict mask-wearing protocols for all students, including those in kindergarten, from the beginning of the academic year in September 2020 and authorised a €6.2m subsidy to provide fabric face masks for all teachers and pupils at both primary and secondary levels. Any student not wearing a mask both in class and on school grounds would be banned from attending class.
In France, where new Covid infections have topped an average of 10,000 cases a day, it is now mandatory for all schoolchildren to wear masks while in school.
The measure came into effect on November 15 after President Emmanuel Macron announced new Covid-19 measures in a televised address to the nation.
It marks a U-turn from the French government’s announcement in late September that children in elementary schools where Covid infection rates were low would not be required to wear masks.
In Italy, all staff and students aged between six and 19 years old are required to wear face masks indoors while at school unless the entire class has been fully vaccinated. The government also introduced a policy in which all teachers and staff must have a Green Pass certificate which shows the holder has either been fully vaccinated, tested negative for the virus within the past 48 hours or has fully recovered from Covid-19.
In Spain, all pupils aged six and up must wear masks in school while ventilation of classrooms is also a key priority. Spanish schools also imposed strict staggered times when certain age groups can enter and leave the school.
Opinion over the need for schoolchildren to wear masks in class in Ireland has varied over the course of the pandemic.
In March, the health watchdog agency HIQA concluded that face masks should not be compulsory for primary school students as the benefit would be limited, but it did not rule them out.
The Health Information and Quality Authority (HiQA) advised the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that the minimum age for the mandatory wearing of masks in schools should remain at 13.
It noted that the use of face coverings such as masks by younger children could lead to both teachers and children alike having closer contacts.
“More touching of faces may occur, including by those supervising children (eg teachers) where they need to assist a child with a face covering; this may lead to closer contact and potentially touching of high-risk secretions,” the watchdog said.
“Any decision to require or recommend face-mask use in children must be balanced against perceived disadvantages associated with their use, for example, potential effects on communication,” HIQA said, noting members of its expert group found mask-wearing, especially in younger children, could impede communication and language skills and create anxiety for children.
But by the end of August this year, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said the issue should be re-examined in light of the stubbornly high cases of Covid due to the spread of the Delta variant over the summer and fears that children could bring the virus into the classroom when they return from their summer holidays.
A month later, after conducting a review on the matter, HIQA concluded that the use of masks in under-13s is to be reviewed again six to eight weeks after schools reopen.
Dr Conor Teljeur, HIQA’s chief scientist, said: “The use of layered mitigation measures in schools and childcare facilities, such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, increased ventilation, and, most importantly, not attending when you have symptoms of Covid-19, reduces the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
“National and international evidence suggests that when these mitigation measures are fully implemented, schools become low risk environments.”
Dr Teljeur added: “As there are currently high rates of infection in the community, we encourage parents and children to continue to observe public health guidance before, during and after school activities. We also recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to avail of the Covid-19 vaccine does so.”