Many secondary students may have to wait until April 12th before they return to the classroom under school reopening plans related to the Covid-19 pandemic being discussed by school staff unions and the Government.
Unions are expected to finalise a return-to-school plan with Department of Education officials on Monday before a formal announcement is made following a Cabinet meeting the following day.
Under draft plans, primary schools would reopen from March 1st at the earliest, for junior infants, senior infants, first classes and second classes.
At second level, Leaving Cert students would be prioritised to return on the same date.
The remainder of primary school classes are expected to return a number of weeks later. However, the pace of this return will be subject to guidance by public health authorities.
At second level, unions are understood to be discussing the return of third and fifth years in a few weeks’ time, followed by the remainder of classes.
However, given that schools close for the Easter holidays on March 26th, it seems likely that many of these students may not return until April 12th.
The president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) said routine Covid-19 testing of teachers and students should be considered on an ongoing basis in order to ensure schools remain open.
Michael Cregan said: "The health and safety of staff and students must never be compromised. We need to seriously consider such a move to make sure schools remain safe and that we keep Covid under control."
Separately, thousands of students with special or additional needs are due to return to mainstream primary and secondary schools on Monday.
It will be the first time since before Christmas that these schools have opened to pupils.
Special schools opened earlier this month with 50 per cent attendance, which is resulting in children with more complex needs attending school for two or three days a week.
Under a school reopening framework being discussed with unions, parents will be asked to sign declaration forms stating that they have no reason to believe their child has an infectious disease such as Covid-19.
This is one of a number of new safety measures contained in a draft framework for reopening schools in light of the greater infection threat posed by the new UK variant.
Parents will also be urged to avoid congregating outside schools, while public health doctors will provide a series of videos online calling on parents to “err on the side of caution” by keeping symptomatic children at home.
In new guidance, schools will be advised to keep windows fully open during break-times and at the end of the school day, and partially open when classrooms are in use.
Meanwhile, secondary teachers’ unions are due to meet this week to discuss plans for the Leaving Cert.
The co-operation of both the Teachers' Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland will be crucial.
The ASTI is polling members on whether they “are willing to participate in a system of accredited grades as announced by the Minister”.
In the meantime, the NAPD president called on the Department of Education for urgent guidance to be provided to schools over the oral exams and other assessment elements.
Oral exams are due to be completed in secondary schools during the Easter break, and potentially beyond.
Mr Cregan said schools lacked guidance on what teachers may be hired to facilitate these oral exams.
He said more details were needed on how students will be assessed for “accredited grades” this year.
All secondary schools are due to close a week early from May 28th to allow teachers and principals to complete the grading process.