So, when exactly are schools set to reopen?
Education sources say Monday, March 1st, is a likely reopening date for primary schools on a phased basis subject to public health advice.
At second level, Leaving Cert students are set to return either during the final week of February or in the first week of March.
Talks are under way with teachers’ unions and school managers this week over this phased reopening of mainstream primary and secondary schools.
Do we know when individual classes or year groups will return?
The sequencing of what classes will return to school is still under discussion but some year groups will be prioritised.
At primary level, youngest classes are expected to return first. This is on the basis that they find remote learning the most challenging.
In the UK, for example, the equivalent of junior infants, senior infants and first class are being prioritised. It is likely the State will follow a similar pattern.
At second level, exam years are expected to return first. Sixth years will be at the top of the queue, followed by third years. Some sources say fifth years will be next, followed by remaining year groups, but these details are still being hammered out.
How long will it take for schools to fully reopen?
The ambition among the Government and unions is to fully reopen schools in advance of Easter, but this will be guided by public health advice.
Easter holidays are early this year – the final day of school is March 26th – which gives a short window to get schools fully reopen.
It remains to be seen whether public health advice will support reopening at this pace. At a briefing on Monday, the National Public Health Emergency Team suggested school reopening could be slower than had been expected.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the impact of the return of some classes would have to be examined over time, given the greater transmissibility of the UK variant.
There has been some speculation that the Easter holidays could be shortened to accommodate a full return to school in March, though union sources have ruled this out.
As result, there’s a strong chance some year groups could end up waiting until after Easter before returning to school.
Where do school staff unions stand on school reopening?
At primary level, it is understood that the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Fórsa – which represents special needs assistants – are on board with a phased reopening beginning on March 1st.
The sequencing of how this will happen is still under discussion this week and unions are seeking public health guidance to back up each phase of school reopening.
At second level, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland supports reopening secondary schools to sixth years in the week beginning Monday, February 22nd, followed by safe reopening of second level on a phased basis.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), however, says it is not yet satisfied over the safety of reopening schools. As a result, sixth years might not return until March 1st.
We’re likely to know more later this week when agreement on the format of the Leaving Cert exams is due to be announced.
What is the latest public health advice on the safety of reopening schools?
Dr Glynn said on Monday that officials were keen to see schools open again, but on a phased basis, and the impact of the return of some classes would have to be examined over time, given the greater transmissibility of the variant first discovered in the UK.
Although disease trends were going in the right direction, “we’re not there yet”, he said, and a further decrease in cases was needed.
This note of caution suggests that opening schools fully during March may be ambitious.
Will classrooms be riskier places in light of the UK variant?
The latest public health advice is that schools remain safe settings. The bigger
risks around school reopening surround the mass mobilisation of people involved.
All eyes will be on the impact of the reopening special education on virus transmission rates within schools.
Special schools reopened last Thursday at 50 per cent capacity, while special classes in mainstream primary schools are due to reopen next Monday.
In the meantime, weekly Covid-19 mass testing reports for the childcare sector are the best indicator for virus transmission rates in classroom-type settings.
The latest positivity rates for mass testing in the sector show they were running at 11.5 per cent* (January 31st-February 6th), down from 12.5 per cent the week before and up from 10 per cent the previous week. These rates are about twice the average rates recorded since the education sector reopened in Septemnber.
* This figure has been amended