Leaving Cert students could end up sitting deferred exams and starting college as late as October or November under contingency plans being discussed by senior education sources.
The Department of Education has been engaging with a range of education stakeholders over alternative plans for the Leaving Cert in the event that the exams do not begin in June as planned.
While senior figures have emphasised that discussions are at an early stage, several sources have confirmed that the option of deferring exams until late summer and starting a new third level academic year in the autumn are being “seriously examined”.
Some higher education institutions have signalled that they would be in a position to delay the start of a new academic year for first-year students by up to two months if necessary.
On Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said there is a "very good chance" Leaving Cert exams will go ahead and urged students to continue studying.
He 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.
Well-placed sources say that while a number of contingencies are being explored, a deferral of exams until later in the summer is emerging as a realistic option.
“There are multiple conversations going on and everything is on the table - whatever happens, the system will need to ensure equity, be transparent and immune to corruption,” said one senior source.
"There is a strong preference to have a Leaving Cert if at all possible. Our sense is that is very likely to be delayed, it just depends on how long," said another. "As we saw with the Rebecca Carter ruling, the system has been able to speed up the correcting process and there was less than a month last year between results and first years going to college."
Senior figures say they expect a decision will be made within the next fortnight on contingency plans for the exams. Most sources say they expect Junior Cert exams will either be cancelled or deferred.
“Much of what happens will depend on the public health situation and how that unfolds - and no one can say for sure what will happen,” the source said.
Other options which have been discussed by education partners - though which are regarded as less likely - include allowing students to progress to their chosen course without an exam and having a selection process at the end of the first year college exams.
A similar system is used in jurisdictions such as Italy, however, there are doubts whether the Irish system would have the capacity for such a move.
Another option which has been discussed is running dramatically slimmed-down Leaving Cert with just maths and English exams, for example.
This on the basis that results in these exams are typically a strong predictor of academic performance at third level. However, a number of sources say the process could be unfair to many students and would struggle to win over public acceptance.
Another option which has been explored in the event that exams are cancelled is matriculation or US-style SAT exam or online assessment by third level colleges themselves.
However, senior higher education sources say there is a strong preference for using the existing Leaving Cert and CAO system. Another concerns is whether all students would have access to broadband.
In the UK, education authorities announced last week that A-level and GCSE exams have been cancelled and replaced with teacher-assessed grades based on students’prior performance.
Education sources say such a move is highly unlikely here as there is less cultural acceptance of teacher-assessed grades. This has also emerged as a major flashpoint with teachers’ unions in the past.