Some schools are telling pupils and teachers they will have to return to school next week in masks if the health authorities do not publish updated guidelines in time that spell out a new policy.
Earlier in April, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced masks would no longer need to be worn in education settings, a move the authorities had been studying for months.
But with days to go before the new term starts on Monday, guidelines for the education sector, last updated in December, still state that masks must be worn in schools.
The health ministry has told Times of Malta the guidelines will be updated “shortly”.
Without fresh guidelines, schools have been left in a state of uncertainty, not knowing, for example if they can set their own rules requiring pupils and teachers to wear masks.
'Nothing has officially changed yet'
One school that still requires students and their teachers to continue wearing masks is the Verdala International School. In an e-mail to parents, the independent school said public health authorities have said mask-wearing will remain mandatory until new guidelines are published.
“We have contacted the public health authorities directly today and they have confirmed that nothing has officially changed yet, despite the media comments. Therefore, we have no option but to return to school wearing our masks until further notice,” an email to parents, seen by Times of Malta, said.
According to public health chief Charmaine Gauci, while the health authorities have said masks are no longer mandatory, it will be up to the schools to decide whether to continue to require mask-wearing.
It remains unclear, however, whether it will be possible for students and educators to ignore their school’s instructions and not wear a mask.
When contacted on the matter on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the health ministry said: “The mandatory use of masks in educational settings has been removed.”
Teachers’ union wants clarity
Malta Union of Teachers head Marco Bonnici said the union was informed that while some schools would not be requiring students and staff to wear masks, others were abiding by the existing guidelines.
“The guidelines that are still in place state that masks must be worn. The authorities have said they will no longer enforce this rule, but because no new guidelines have been published, we have cases where schools have said they will continue to require mask-wearing,” Bonnici said.
“At this stage, because no new rules have been issued, it seems like one cannot just remove the mask if a school decides it wants its staff and students to wear one. That is why it is important that before Monday we have clear guidelines as there is still a lot of uncertainty,” Bonnici said.
Masks have been mandatory in schools since 2020 when students and teachers first returned to class following the closures earlier that year.
Some parents have repeatedly called for the removal of masks in schools, especially as other restrictions started being eased. For months, health authorities dismissed the calls saying the masks helped slow down the spread of COVID-19 and therefore ensured schools stayed open despite outbreaks in the community.
Church schools have also said they still believe masks should continue to be worn, although they are also waiting on the authorities to publish their guidelines.
Replying to questions, a Curia spokesperson said talks are being held with public health authorities but, official guidelines currently in place and published on the Deputy Prime Minister website still require masks to be worn in schools.
"Notwithstanding the common desire to return to normality, Church Schools acknowledge that the use of masks has been a very effective means of keeping schools operationally more sustainable and healthier places for the community, than they would have been without masks," the spokesperson said.