Plans to fully reopen schools fully in September have been thrown into doubt, as new public health guidance calls for physical distancing of at least one metre in most school settings.
Just last month, the previous government said it had intended to fully reopen schools in September with a Department of Education report stating that children would have to learn at home four days a week should physical distancing guidelines remain in place when schools reopen, or stay at home for at least two school days should the two metre rule be reduced to one.
However, interim guidance from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre for the reopening of schools issued to the Department of Education last week, states that a distance of one metre should be maintained between desks or between individual pupils from third class upwards.
In secondary school, physical distancing of two metres, where possible, or at least one metre should be maintained between desks or between individual students or staff, according to the guidelines.
The advice encourages schools to limit interaction on arrival and departure and in hallways and other shared spaces within schools.
Social physical contact like hand to hand greetings and hugs should be discouraged, while pupils and teachers should avoid sharing items such as pens, tablets and phones.
Behaviours that involve hand-to-mouth contact such as putting pens/pencils in the mouth, should also be discouraged while contact surfaces, keyboards or tablets should be cleaned regularly and hand hygiene encouraged.
Education minister Norma Foley welcomed the publication of the guidelines but only spoke of schools opening "as fully as possible".
"There is great willingness to work together and I am confident that with ongoing engagements with all stakeholders and work by my officials schools will be enabled to plan the safe return of their communities," she said.
Ms Foley said the guidance provided a platform for deep engagement with all of the school stakeholders over the coming weeks.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said there was frustration among schools across the country that the guidance was not published earlier.
Its general secretary John Boyle said "public health advice must be paramount in decisions around schools’ reopening" and called for additional funding and resources to ensure primary schools and special schools can reopen to the maximum level possible.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said "a large volume of work" needs to be done over the coming weeks to ascertain the exact number of pupils that will be able to return to school in September.
ASTI will continue to engage constructively with the Department of Education and Skills and all the stakeholders to ensure appropriate guidance covering all aspects is issued to schools and a smooth reopening can take place.