Face masks, pods and early starts: how the Leaving Cert exams will be run this year

Mingling with other students before and after exams to be banned on school premises

Any Leaving Cert student who refuses or fails to wear a face mask will be refused access to the exams, under official guidance being issued to schools.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) guidance also confirms that students will not be allowed to present for their exams if they are diagnosed with Covid-19, are a close contact or have been instructed to self-isolate.

Students will be required to be in their assigned seat in the exam centre at least 30 minutes before the start time of exams on day one and at least 15 minutes in advance of their exams on subsequent days.

While candidates who are late may be admitted up to 30 minutes after the exam start time, this time will be forfeited.


The only exception to mandatory face masks will apply to students who have been exempted on medical grounds. These students will be assigned placed in special, smaller exam centres.

During the exams students will be required to maintain two-metres physical distancing at all times and to avoid mingling with other candidates before and after the exams.

Serious consequences

Schools are also being asked to consider, as far as is reasonably practicable, maintaining each group of students in a room or hall as a pod for the duration of the exams.

Candidates should also be assigned to the same desk in the same room for the duration of their exams .

The official guidance states that the actions of Leaving Cert candidates between now and the end of the exams in June could have “very serious consequences not only for them, but for others”.

“While the country is starting to open up, the actions of all involved in minimising the opportunity for Covid-19 to spread will be instrumental in ensuring that Leaving Certificate candidates can be provided with the opportunity to take their examinations in June,” it states.

It says students and staff should follow basic public health advice, stay within their normal pod - such as their class or family pod - and avoid mingling with other students.

In addition, students should limit interactions with others, even in outdoor settings, and avoid gatherings that present risks of contracting the virus.

“This includes not getting together with other candidates in study groups in advance of, or over the course of, the examinations,” it adds.

All students should follow advice about the signs of Covid-19, such as isolating if anyone in the household has symptoms of the virus until getting a negative test.

“If candidates act without due care, it could mean that they and/or their friends do not get to sit their examinations due to Covid-19,” the advice states.

It says students who have not opted to sit any exams - and who may be finishing school earlier as a result - should be mindful of their friends who intend to sit the exams.

In all circumstances, it says public health considerations must take precedence over examinations attendance.

New layout

During the exams, there will be at least two metres between candidates and from the superintendent’s station.

In a standard classroom, the maximum density is 10 candidates plus the superintendent.

While multiple groups may be located in school gyms, and other large areas such as libraries, there should be no more than 72 candidates in a single large group. This may be divided into groups of 23 students.

Due to these revised arrangements schools are using a far greater proportion of their accommodation footprint for the 2021 Leaving Cert exams,

However, the total number of centres in schools this year is similar to the number of centres in other years due to the cancellation of the Junior Cycle exams,

The guidance also confirms that give the unique circumstances of this year, and restrictions on accessing hospitals, there will be no sitting of exams in hospitals or other out-of-school settings as might have been possible in previous years.

It says that some candidates may experience a bereavement or other trauma over the course of the examinations and will not proceed with their examinations.

In the event of a bereavement of a close relative, there continues to be flexibility in scheduling an exam to allow a late or early start to an exam scheduled on the day of the funeral but there will be no opportunity to sit an exam on an alternative date as there was in 2019.

While less likely, it says circumstances also need to be considered where it is not possible to run the exams due to a more significant disruption such as a school closure or a local, county, regional or national lockdown.

In these circumstances, it says the vast majority of students will have accredited grades available to them as a safety net in the event that they are unable to take their exams, even if they have not opted for them.

“Even if candidates have not opted for an accredited grade in a subject or in any of their subjects, the accredited grade, provided the candidate is eligible, will be available as contingency in the event that the candidate cannot sit the examination in June,” the guidance states.

Dealing with outbreaks

The operation of the Leaving Cert exams does not change the measures that schools need to take in preventing and controlling Covid-19, the guidance states.

Nor does it change the response of schools to dealing with an outbreak within the school.

It says school leaders should continue to “act calmly, responsibly” and in accordance with the directions they are given by the public health authorities.

If a student, staff member or SEC superintendent develop symptoms which could be consistent with Covid-19, it says they should self-isolate immediately, not attend the exam hall or school premises and discuss the matter with their GP.

If this happens shortly before the exams when the student or superintendent is at the school or during the exams, they should not continue with the exam and should seek medical advice.

It says public health authorities will continue to engage with schools, as they have been up to now, if they receive a notification of a case of Covid-19 in someone who attended the school setting whilst infectious.

This includes undertaking a public health risk a assessment and identifying cases and close contacts as appropriate.

It says the maintenance of exam centre pods should assist schools in their engagement with the public health authorities and assist with providing information so that contacts can be identified.

Other safety measures include social distancing rules and the use of a high number of exam s centres, so that most will not be operating at full capacity.

It says it is not up to schools to close exam centres without the direction of public health clinicians.

“School management should not take any action nor should they refuse entry to the exams to those they believe may be close contacts; or those they believe to be unwell or have symptoms. These determinations will be made by public health in a timely manner,” it adds.

Same desks

Students will be assigned to the same desk in the same exam centre for the duration of their examinations other than for specific logistical reasons, such as aural exams.

Superintendents will also be in the same room for the duration of the examinations unless they are required to move rooms by the school authority in an emergency situation.

Exams staff will observe social distancing and minimise their interactions to those required for the delivery and integrity of the examinations.

In addition, all rooms must be adequately ventilated even when taking account of the need to ensure that external noise does not interfere with the examinations.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent