For Micheál Martin and his embattled ministers, it is another pandemic headache that could turn into a political nightmare. On September 7, the Government faces one of its stiffest tests so far: the announcement of the results of Leaving Cert exams that never happened.
If it all goes wrong, they face the prospect of a repeat of what occurred in Britain, where irate school-leavers accused ministers of "ruining their lives" before there was a spectacular political U-turn.
The almost-impossible task for the Government and schools is to give accurate Leaving Cert grades to students who have not sat their exams. This year, because the holding of exams in June was deemed impractical as a result of Covid-19, the authorities are relying on two main elements to assess how students would have performed.
Firstly, teachers have had to give each student a percentage mark based on how well they would have been expected to do in their exams.
Secondly, the Government is relying on a mysterious computer algorithm to ensure that results meet a set standard across the state. Outside the walls of the Department of Education, it seems that nobody knows exactly how this will work.
The school's mark and Department of Education statistics will be crunched together to produce a final grade.
When it comes to college admission, there will be hell to pay if the computer says 'No' to Johnny or Jacinta, the brightest sparks in sixth year. The computer model will rely on a school's previous record in exams - how they did over the past three years - and other factors, including its socio-economic background. It will allow for the fact that girls tend to be better at exams than boys.
There is no doubt that teachers know their students' academic achievements best of all, and most will produce what they see as a trustworthy score, perhaps veering on the side of generosity.
But as one university lecturer told Review, predicting the grades that a student might have achieved on the big day in June is an inexact science, fraught with difficulties and social pressures. "It's a bit like predicting a horse race or who would reach the final of the Champions' League in football," the academic said.
"If you had asked me at the start of the pandemic who had the best chance of doing well in the Champions League, I would have said Real Madrid and Barcelona, because of their recent record in the tournament. But that is not how it turned out."
There is no accounting for what would happen on the day of an exam. Sleeplessness, nerves and a surge of last-minute cramming all could have come into play.
In the UK, students have relied on predicted grades for many years in the university admission process.
Their teachers forecast grades early in the year, and they receive offers of college places on condition of achieving certain grades in their exams.
Carl Cullinane, an Irish education researcher with the Sutton Trust, a London-based educational charity, says the vast majority of such predicted grades in Britain are inaccurate and most teachers overestimate their students' eventual scores.
A study by University College London found that only 16pc of UK college applicants achieved the grades that they were forecast to achieve, based on their best three A-levels.
As in Ireland, this year the British universities are relying on predicted grades for their actual admissions to university, and the computerised model used by the authorities turned into a fiasco. But this time the worry has been about downgrading of results.
As soon as the first UK's results were announced in Scotland this month, there was an outcry over how marks awarded by teachers were reduced when they went through a computerised process of national standardisation.
Cormac Savage, president of Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland, told Review that when the results were announced, 11,000 students in the North had their results downgraded from the mark that was assigned by their teachers.
"We had horrendous, heartbreaking stories from students. Some students were being downgraded by four to five grades," says Savage, who sat A-levels at St Patrick's Grammar School in Co Down.
"Young people lost university offers and had their lives derailed. There was intense anxiety and stress before the minister [Peter Weir of the DUP] made a U-turn."
Such was the level of protest across the UK, where students from disadvantaged areas were twice as likely to have their marks reduced, that the teachers' original grades have now been reinstated.
The marking down of a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students is attributed to over-reliance in the computer algorithm on a school's past performance, with schools in deprived areas tending to have poorer academic records.
That is the main worry of Irish educationalists as we prepare for the announcement of Leaving Cert results.
While the system used across the UK is different in some ways, it employs a broadly similar technique: combining estimated grades produced by a student's school with a process of "national standardisation".
The Department of Education says it will compare information about how students in a school have fared in a subject at Leaving Certificate over the past three years with the national standard. It will also review the performance of this year's group of students against how they did at Junior Cycle.
According to the department, this allows officials to check whether the estimated percentage marks in each subject from the school are reasonable.
As part of this process, students could have their scores downgraded if grades provided by a school are seen to be inflated.
Under political pressure on the issue, the Minister for Education Norma Foley has insisted that the system will be fair, and that the grade will be weighted towards the marks given by schools. However, by Thursday of this week, she was still refusing to release details of how precisely the algorithm will work in adjusting grades.
Part of the reason given for the secrecy is that the model is still being tweaked in the light of what has happened in Britain. That may or may not inspire confidence.
Cullinane says an independent expert should be allowed to look at how the Irish system will operate and whether it has the flaws of the British model.
"Transparency is important," he says. "They could release some of the basic details and some sort of independent expert could oversee the model while it is ongoing and before any results are published."
According to Cullinane, the big problem in the UK was with outliers. These were high-performing students in low-performing schools, who had their grades cut because their school had a poor academic record.
"The tall poppies were chopped down - and that was abhorrent for the public to see," he says.
At the other end of the social scale, underachievers in high-performing schools with a history of good grades were less likely to have their results downgraded. It is inevitable that the results announced here in just over a fortnight will lead to legal challenges, possibly with students seeking to have their grades revised.
Already, Elijah Burke, a Leaving Cert student home-schooled by his mother, has won a High Court challenge against the Minister for Education's decision to exclude him from the calculated grades process.
The 18-year-old won the right to have his grades assessed, but what happens if a student believes the final calculated grade in a subject is unfair?
Details of the appeals process supplied by the department are vague, and the grounds for appeal are restrictive.
According to the Department of Education's website, checks will be undertaken to ensure that the data processing was completed correctly by the school and the department.
But the department's website says: "Due to the nature of the model, the professional judgment of the school will not form part of the appeals process."
It was reported this week that students will be able to see the mark given by their teacher a week after they receive their official grade. If they have been downgraded from their teacher's mark, or they feel their teacher has marked them unfairly, that is likely to cause consternation among students.
James McDermott, lecturer in law at University College Dublin, says the appeal system is likely to be open to legal challenges.
It is not robust, he says, because it deals only with clerical or administrative errors, and not the substantive issue of when a wrong grade was given, and the individuals' right to challenge that.
"In a normal year, when you get your grade, you can look at the marking system and if you are unhappy, you can appeal and the paper is reviewed," he says.
"It is obviously more difficult when there is no exam script, but the decision to award a grade has to be based on something. Surely, you should be entitled to review that."
After grading their students this summer, schools and teachers were instructed to "securely destroy" supporting documents used in calculating the grade. Schools have been directed to retain only the final forms submitted to the Department of Education which record students' final estimated marks and class rankings. That is likely to make appeals more complicated.
As the process of giving grades got under way earlier in the summer, teachers were advised by the department to beware of "unconscious bias" towards students.
A guide for schools on the estimated marks pointed to research showing that teacher estimates are often affected by classroom behaviour.
A teacher's estimate can be affected by a student's socio-economic background, or a first impression. There can also be a "halo effect" or "horns effect", where a teacher's perception is influenced by a single positive or negative trait.
Despite these warnings, Dr John Walsh, lecturer in education at Trinity College Dublin, says the Government should trust teachers when producing the final grades.
"It is very difficult to calculate how a student would have performed on a given day, but teachers are in the best position to make that assessment, because they are likely to have worked with them for five or six years," he says. Walsh, who is a Labour councillor in Dublin, says there should be some kind of light touch moderation to ensure the marking system is consistent.
He says relying heavily on mock exams is not a suitable approach, because teachers may assess these in different ways in different schools, sometimes to encourage students to do better through the "shock of the mock".
Individuals' results should not be based on the historic academic performance of their schools over the past three years, Walsh says, because this can fluctuate from year to year.
"It has a disproportionate effect in downgrading the results of students in less advantaged schools," he says.
Facing the prospect of a backlash from teenagers, the natural temptation for Micheál Martin and Norma Foley will be to rely on the teacher's original marks as much as possible, ensuring that there are rewards for everyone in the audience by erring on the side of generosity.
That would put responsibility back on the teacher, and deflect attention from the department, but it would also create problems.
The danger is that it creates grade inflation, and a glut of students whose grades don't match their true academic abilities as they go off to college. It would also reward teachers or schools who were overly generous with their marking, and punish those who gave their students an accurate and fair assessment.
Whatever happens with the Leaving Cert results, this year's crop of students, most of whom will never sit the exam, are likely to remain a curiosity, possibly on a par with the learner drivers of 1979, who were given an amnesty and did not have to pass a driving test.
If the computer algorithm used by the department penalises high-achieving individual students in disadvantaged schools, there is bound to be uproar.
For Dr Shane Bergin, lecturer in science education at UCD, the most important issue is not the immediate one, but tackling the inequality in the system that continues year after year.
"There are numerous studies that show that certain groups outperform others in the Leaving Cert," he says, "and it's not based on their academic ability, but where they live."
The Northern student
Charlotte Hart's teachers forecast she would get an AAB in her A-levels, securing her spot at the University of Bristol to study politics and international relations. "I was predicted to get the correct mark," says the 18-year-old from Ballynahinch, Co Down, writes Édaein O'Connell.
"But then I opened my letter, and I had gotten an ABC. I was devastated."
Hart had not only lost her place but also a hockey scholarship at the English university. On results day, she visited Down High School, where it became clear she was not alone.
"I went to the school straight away because my teachers had given me a strong A in history and French, and I didn't understand it," she said. "I could tell by their faces that the results weren't what they expected either. Then I looked around and saw that the school was busy when it really shouldn't have been.
"A lot of my friends had been affected," she adds. "My best friend had been predicted to get three As to do medicine in Queen's, but she got three Bs and lost her offer."
Teachers and students were perplexed by the changes. "We had no idea. I thought it would be based on how well you did throughout the year," she says.
Hart accepted a place at her second choice, the University of Southampton, but felt more could be done. She wrote an open letter to Peter Weir, Northern Ireland's Minister for Education, criticising the grading system. It was met with immense praise online. Yet she says she didn't write it for herself.
"I was one of the lucky ones," she says. "When I wrote that letter, it was more for my friends and teachers. It wasn't just anomalies. My teachers were brilliant and did everything they could to get us to university. Their work was undermined. It was their professional integrity being challenged and disregarded."
Students in the North were due to get their revised grades yesterday after Weir followed the British government's U-turn and decided to base results solely on teachers' predictions. Students who accepted second-preference offers based on earlier downgraded results face an uncertain outcome.
Bristol heard Hart's story and will honour her place, but she fears for her friends. "The majority didn't get into their chosen university, and it wasn't just my school," she says. "It's heartbreaking."
The Leaving Cert student
Reuban Murray is among the thousands of Leaving Cert students who are waiting for their results, writes Kim Bielenberg.
The 17-year-old attended Mountrath Community School in Co Laois and hopes to study political science at University College Cork. He will defer his first year as he continues his role as president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union.
He says there is a lot of concern among students about how the calculated grades will work. "After looking at what happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland, students are worried. They have put their trust in the Department of Education to produce a fair and equitable system of calculated grades and they expect them to deliver.
"We are asking for written confirmation that the national standardisation process [the adjustment by the Department of Education to the student marks recommended by teachers] will not put students at an advantage or disadvantage. Immediately after the grades are released, there should be a comprehensive review of the process."
Murray says the algorithm and the statistical model should be publicly released so that there can be an independent evaluation.
"The Minister for Education should look at the experience in the UK to make sure that the model is successful here," he says. "We should trust the professionalism of teachers. In the event that a student is downgraded because of the school they go to, I would not see that as a fair and equal system."
As with all other Leaving Cert students, Murray had to make a swift adjustment to remote learning when the lockdown began in March.
"Teachers were in regular communication and work was assigned," he says. "My teachers made a big effort and we worked through Google Classroom."
He also believes that when students are learning remotely, there should be inspections of engagement from teachers to ensure that everyone gets a basic level of education.
Aoife (not her real name) is an Irish and history teacher from Co Limerick
I felt enormous pressure marking the students. For a week or more, I thought of nothing else. It was incredibly stressful at times. With the traditional Leaving Cert, you as a teacher are removed from it once the student sits down for the final exam, but we were in this until the very end.
I am slightly nervous about the forthcoming grades, but I can't let myself think like that because I did the best I could for my students. I spent a lot of time on it and I did not take it lightly.
We were given pages upon pages of guidelines, but at the end of the day, it was our professional opinion. This was the only feasible way for the Leaving Cert to take place this year and nothing else could have been done. I can understand the panic being felt by some, especially after what happened in the UK.
When it comes to the standardisation process here, a small part of me is worried. In some ways, it's hard to know what way they will calculate it. I would imagine they won't allow for wide discrepancies but there is always a risk.
As teachers, we gave students what we felt they deserved based on results and averages and it would be so disappointing to see them get anything less than that.
However, a bigger part of me feels our system is proper. It's percentage- and pupil-orientated but is structured in such a way that grade inflation is prevented, making it fairer for current and future Leaving Cert students. Also, the Government knows it can't slip up in the current climate, especially following the A-Level results.
It has a window of opportunity right now if there are issues to address. There are injustices every year, whether it's with grading or not getting papers rechecked in time. People must never lose sight of that, but it has to be kept to the bare minimum.
No single system is going to satisfy us all, and these results won't suit everyone. There is no good in saying otherwise. But there are ways around it and the opportunity to appeal and rectify it if students are allowed to sit the actual exam in November.
As told to Édaein O'Connell