The Government is planning to begin reopening special schools and primary classes for children with additional needs from next Thursday, January 21st.
It follows agreement with school staff unions over assurances over the safety of reopening classes in line with public health guidance.
In a statement, Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister of State for special education Josepha Madigan said education partners were working towards a "phased return" for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools.
In addition, the aim is that children with significant additional needs in mainstream primary classes will also be able to return to the classroom.
Sources at the meeting today said there was also growing hope the children across the wider education system – primary and secondary – could return to school in early February subject to public health advice.
The decision to reopen special schools and classes was welcomed by advocacy groups for children with disabilities.
Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said the decision will bring great relief and reassurance to children with special needs and their families across the country.
"Working in partnership, stakeholders have decided it is no longer acceptable for Ireland to be an outlier in failing to support students with the greatest level of need during this pandemic," he said.
“We now need to ensure every support required is put in place to see the doors of schools reopen on Thursday.”
He said it was vital, however, that urgent work takes place to ensure in-school learning also reopens for students with additional needs at second level.
Andy Pike of the Fórsa, which represents special-needs assistants, said work is needed over the coming days to ensure schools are safe to reopen.
He said there was a shared intention to get schools open on a “limited basis” and provide “some kind of service” that builds towards a full reopening on February 1st.
In a statement Ms Foley said her department and education stakeholders were working together towards a phased return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children with significant additional needs in mainstream classes from next Thursday.
“During this lead into a phased commencement of in-school services at primary level, we are working in parallel with post-primary stakeholders to address their concerns and recognising that post-primary schools present different logistical challenges if a partial return is to be possible,” she said.
“I very much hope that we can work together to set out a pathway for the return of all children at all levels of schooling at the start of February, subject of course to Government and public health consideration of what constitutes the safe movement of people at that point.”
Separately, there have been calls from within Fianna Fáil for students to be given an option of predicted grades.
Senator Timmy Dooley said many anxious students have already missed out on a large part of the school year and should have the option of sitting the exam.
There were also calls from other Fianna Fáil TDs and senators for clarity to be urgently provided to students.
Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne said it was possible to conduct the Leaving Cert oral exams online, paving the way for the traditional exams.
“In an ideal world, the face-to-face assessment of a student’s language capacity would be preferred, [but] the use of technology could ensure that a student could be examined safely.”
Mr Byrne added that the oral exams are due to happen in the coming months and that a decision is needed soon.
“Students are used to using Teams, Zoom and other channels. It is important that we are innovative and give students certainty soon that the orals will go ahead.”
The Irish Second Level Students’ Union (ISSU) has also said it believes an alternative to the traditional Leaving Cert will be needed.
A survey opened last week by the union has already received 20,000 responses, the results of which are due to be published this weekend.
ISSU president Reuban Murray said it was clear exam-year students in particular were “really struggling”.
“Leaving Certificate students are entering their fourth month of online learning of a two-year senior cycle, and even though we knew that schools were not able to deliver online learning to the same standard last year, these gaps have not been filled or addressed in the intervening months,” he said.
“Now, we are looking at an uneven playing field for students in the home stretch towards exams, and student stress and anxiety is unbelievably high
However, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland said it believed the Leaving Cert must take place this year.
It said the exam was highly trusted, externally marked, was more reliable and enjoyed significantly greater trust than the calculated grades system.
In addition to the written exam, the union said it was important to highlight the importance of orals, practicals and projects, where other types of learning, knowledge and skills are assessed as part of the certification process.