Schools are being advised to prioritise in-person teaching for exam-year students and pupils with special needs in the event that enough teaching staff are not available.
New Department of Education guidance to be issued later today says schools should maximise in-person teaching and provide remote teaching to classes who cannot be accommodated in school.
The guidance comes as teachers’ unions and school managers estimate that an average of between 15 and 20 per cent of teaching staff will be absent from schools for reasons related to Covid-19 when they reopen on Thursday.
Some badly-affected schools are facing shortages as high as 50 per cent.
Unions expect significant levels of disruption over the coming days due to a shortage of substitution cover, with classes likely to be asked to remain at home in many cases.
At primary level, the new department’s guidance states that schools should maximise in-person teaching for children with special needs in both special schools and mainstream schools.
They should also prioritise younger class groups – such as junior, senior infants and first classes, for example – as they are less able to adapt to remote teaching and learning.
As a result, older classes are more likely to be asked to remain at home if there is disruption.
At second level, the guidance states that schools should maximise on-site education for State examination year groups (third and sixth years) and fifth-year classes.
They should also prioritise in-person teaching for children with special needs.
As a result, transition-year students along with first and second years are more likely to be asked to study online in the event of disruption.
All schools are due to reopen on Thursday after medical experts advised that there was no public health rationale in keeping them closed for longer.
Minister for Education Norma Foley said risk mitigation measures had been revised by public health officials who said they were sufficient.
She said the situation would remain under review and public health had agreed to look at the issue of medical-grade masks for teachers and contact tracing.
Ms Foley said the coming days and weeks “will not be without their challenges”, but the pandemic had shown that children are best served by in-person learning.
An Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) survey of 1,500 schools, meanwhile, found that about half of schools are facing staff shortages of about 20 per cent, while a further 8 per cent are facing staff shortages of 50 per cent or more.
IPPN president Brian O’Doherty said a shortage of substitute teachers was a major problem and schools needed to be prepared to redeploy special-needs assistants and special-needs teachers if needed.
Boards of management would also have to make decisions such as the necessity for some classes to be conducted remotely, he said.
Séamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 primary schools, said schools would do their best to reopen and asked for patience from parents.
“We expect the vast majority of schools will reopen; however, we anticipate disruption to the system due to the prevalence of the virus in communities,” he said.
“Principals and boards will do their best to keep schools open, but there will be disruption. We’re facing into a very challenging period.”
At second level, school management bodies also estimate that between 15 and 20 per cent of staff, on average will be absent.
Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), said widespread disruption was likely.
“Schools won’t be able to facilitate every class with the level of enforced absences expected because there are not enough substitutes available in many cases. There will be disruption and it will be up to school principals to prioritise where face-to-face learning occurs,” he said.
He said schools would prioritise in-school teaching for students with special needs who might be less able to benefit from online learning.
Mr Gillespie cautioned that providing a combination of in-person and remote teaching would be challenging logistically, given that subject teachers typically teach across multiple year groups.