The INTO has said it has been assured that senior members of the Nphet will communicate directly with the sector in the coming week over any plans to re-open schools.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation also outlined its priorities ahead of any re-opening, including that its members are given higher prioritisation for the Covid-19 vaccine.
In a statement issued following the latest meeting between the INTO Central Executive Committee and the Department of Education, the union said it remained committed to "an orderly and safe reopening of our primary and special schools, with a particular focus on how we can best support our most vulnerable pupils".
More talks will take place on Thursday and the union said the Central Executive Committee had reiterated the necessity for government to allow sufficient time for planning any re-opening, improving testing/tracing available to schools with immediate effect, and giving higher prioritisation to INTO members for the Covid-19 vaccine.
"While we welcome the increased engagement and input of public health into decision making, it is imperative that government makes it abundantly clear that failure to comply with the wider public health advice during any phased return to school risks undermining efforts to ensure a safe, orderly return to school for all pupils and staff," it said.
It comes as infectious disease specialists have cautioned against relying on vaccination alone as a mechanism to speed up reopening schools, given the calls to prioritise staff and students.
The Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG), which advocates for a ‘zero-Covid’ approach, discussed strategies around the reopening of schools at a webinar on Wednesday.
When asked during a Q&A about the vaccine rollout and whether teachers should be prioritised for vaccination in order to reopen schools sooner, doubts were raised by attendees.
The key is to get the rates of Covid-19 transmission in the community down to very low levels, according to Professor Sam McConkey. “Then the schools can function again.”
“I think it's fundamentally wrong to suggest that if we could just vaccinate the teachers, or some of the teachers or the students, or some of the students, that would fix the problem," Prof McConkey said. "Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, I don’t think that is the case.”
The “middle ground” between the start of vaccination and reaching full vaccination coverage is hard to predict, according to Professor Gerry Killeen of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork (UCC).
"Given that we are really in a big battle — an even bigger battle now than we were before because of this new variant — I don’t think we have room to play with.”
Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute said: “We do not know if vaccination actually suppresses transmission so using that as a mechanism for opening schools is not necessarily going to solve the problem of transmission.”
It's better to stop transmission first and then open schools, he added. “Once you don’t have transmission in the community, then you can open schools safely and that’s the only way [to open schools safely].”
Meanwhile, the State Exams Advisory Group is to meet next week to discuss the 2021 State examinations. Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, wants all students to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, but to prioritise children in special schools and classes and Leaving Cert students.
“Her intention is to run the traditional Leaving Cert,” a spokesman for the minister said.
The Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) has written an open letter to the minister, calling for a "rethink" of the traditional exams, and for an alternative format.
Tethering to the idea of trying to make the traditional state exams go ahead will lead to a "repeat" of mistakes from last year, it warns.
Leaving Certificate students are now in their fourth month of online learning in a two-year cycle, said Reuban Murray, ISSU president. "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."