Mainstream schools set to reopen over three-week period ahead of Easter

Talks get under way on alternative ‘non-exam’ option for Leaving Cert students

Primary and secondary schools are likely to open on a phased basis over a three-week period in March, according to a number of senior education sources.

Special education will partially reopen from Thursday of this week when the State’s 140-plus special schools open their doors with 50 per cent student attendance.

They will be followed by the full return of special classes in mainstream primary schools, which are due to reopen on February 22nd.

While no formal decision has been made yet, well-placed sources say the return of special classes at second level is likely to be next in late February followed by Leaving Certs.


This will likely be followed by the phased return of mainstream classes across primary and secondary schools over a three-week period, in advance of the Easter holidays which start on March 26th.

However, sources say the pace of the phased return will be guided by public health advice and trends in the transmission of Covid-19 in the community.

Talks have yet to focus on which year groups will return first, but sources say classes most likely to resume earliest at primary level will be junior and senior infants.

This is on the basis that remote learning is most challenging for these age groups.

At second level, exam year students – third and sixth years – look set to be prioritised first, followed by fifth years and the remainder of students.

Confidential talks between the Department of Education and second-level teachers’ unions are taking place this week, although the focus on these contacts is understood to be on finalising details of the 2021 Leaving Cert.

Last week, Minister for Education Norma Foley confirmed that planning had begun for Leaving Cert exams and an alternative "non-exam" option for students.

This alternative option is likely to be a modified version of last year’s calculated grades model, which combined teachers’ estimates of students’ marks with a standardisation process aimed at achieving fairness and consistency.

However, sources say the move to provide choice for students this year poses significant challenges in standardising results across two very different processes and ensuring all candidates are treated fairly.

The new model is also likely to need to take account of students’ performance in orals, practical and coursework.

These additional components account for between 25 and 50 per cent of marks, depending on individual subjects.

In addition, Ms Foley has signalled that the alternative will need to provide an option for students to get grades for subjects they are taking outside school.

Thousand of calculated grades in subjects such as minority languages were not awarded last year on the basis that students did not have tutors or a reliable body of coursework.

Sources say there is an ambition to agree a Leaving Cert framework with education partners within the next week.

Once details have been agreed, a new round of intensive talks over school reopening is expected.

In the meantime, unions will be paying close attention on the outcome of mass-testing for Covid-19 in both special education and the childcare sector.

In the past these rates have been an indicator for transmission of the virus within school settings.

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