Schools, third-level institutions and childcare facilities are set to remain closed until at least April 19th in support of efforts to combat the coronavirus, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
He also said that there is a “very good chance” Leaving Cert exams will go ahead and urged students to continue studying.
Mr Varadkar said he was was hopeful schools might be able to come back in May and June and to “have the Leaving Cert in the normal way”.
However, if this did not happen, he said the Minister for Education was working on contingency plans to allow the Leaving Cert to go ahead.
At a press conference in Dublin, he told reporters that the Government was doing “everything possible or feasible that we can so that group of young people could start college”.
The Irish Times understands that one contingency plan being discussed involves deferring Leaving Cert exams until later in the summer and allowing first-year students to start college as late as October or November.
Special Needs Assistants
Separarely, many Special Needs Assistants and some teaching staff are set to be redeployed to assist with a major expansion of coronavirus contact tracing services.
Schools, which are currently closed, have been asked to identify staff who are available to work in other areas during the crisis. The department may also temporarily reassign some SNAs to other roles commensurate with their existing duties.
Fórsa, the trade union, said the department has confirmed that SNAs may be reassigned to other posts as part of a public service-wide mobilisation to tackle the virus and maintain essential public services. The plans allows for the temporary transfer of staff to critical roles for up to three months.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, have called for clarity around contingency plans for the State exams.
Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD said: “The situation is unsustainable and it is deeply unfair on students, their families and teachers to be operating under such stress and pressure.”
Thomas Byrne TD, Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman, also called on the Government to “ramp up” supports for students attending disadvantaged or Deis schools who face bigger barriers to distance learning.
Youth Work Ireland also warned that the most disadvantaged students face losing out most from school closures and uncertainty over the State exams. The federation of 22 local youth services said disadvantaged students have less support at home to do educational work independently.
"Schools were the first to close from March 12th but we have heard little about young people's educational needs since then, there is clearly growing uncertainty about the feasibility of holding state exams and the UK have already made a call on this,"said Michael Mc Loughlin of Youth Work Ireland
“Young people need clarity and for those in exam classes key decisions about third level and other career options depend on these exams.”
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland said it appreciated that schools needed to remain closed in order to tackle the coronavirus threat.
“The health and safety of our people, young and old, must always be the principal consideration,” TUI president Séamus Lahart said.
“These are exceptional circumstances and we thank teachers and lecturers for their creativity, application and ongoing commitment to students. The public can be assured that educators will continue to do their work to the highest professional and ethical standards.”