No "credible" assurances have been given that schools will be safe places next week for Leaving Cert students and their teachers, according to unions representing second-level teachers.
While the vast majority of students are switching to remote learning from Monday until at least February 1, Leaving Cert students are to receive three days a week of in-person learning.
Despite the equivalent exams being canceled for students in the UK and Northern Ireland, the Government intends to hold the 'traditional' Leaving Cert this summer.
Minister for Education Norma Foley said the in-class time would be "extremely important" for students as they prepared for their exams.
"The National Public Health Emergency Team remain of the view that schools are low-risk environments but that there is a need to reduce activity and movement to curb the spread of the virus," she added.
However, both the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) have expressed serious concerns over reopening to Leaving Cert students.
'Aside from the very real health and safety concerns for students, staff and the wider community, implementing proposed return for Leaving Certificate students a logistical nightmare, not least in terms of timetabling' https://t.co/haLgGvUIG9— Teachers' Union Ire. (@TUIunion) January 6, 2021
TUI President Martin Marjoram said the union's members were not confident that opening schools to Leaving Cert students could be safely achieved under the current circumstances.
"This premature decision of Government is deeply damaging to the trust and confidence that has allowed us to keep schools open since September, despite the various problems."
As well as the public health implication, the measures pose a "logistical nightmare", not least when it comes to timetabling, he added. "Students in other years still have to be catered for [remotely] along with those Leaving Certificate students who, for a variety of reasons, will not be in a position to attend."
In a statement, the ASTI said it had not been provided with a "credible" level of assurance by the Government that schools would be safe places next week. The union fears the "decision has been made without full consideration of potential consequences to current public health objectives".
Representatives from the ASTI are to meet with public health officials to discuss all the implications of the Government decision.
Earlier this week, the Irish Second-Level Students' Union had called for exam year students to be allowed to continue with in-person learning, should the public health advice allow it.
Meanwhile, funding for the School Meals Programme is to continue to operate during the extended school closure, the Department of Social Protection confirmed. The arrangements will not change from when schools closed in 2020.