Education Minister Norma Foley is braced for a wave of Covid cases in schools when they reopen.
The minister is beefing up the resources that her department provides to the dedicated HSE school-support teams to ensure there is a timely response where a positive case is detected.
School inspectors have been working with the HSE teams since the end of October, but more are being assigned to the task and they will also put in longer hours.
Overall, the plan is to increase the capacity of teams by 70pc in the fortnight around the reopening and the weeks immediately afterwards.
The Government has extended the Christmas break to Monday, January 11, to allow more time for the effects of stricter public health restrictions to kick in.
But there is clearly a worry that, even with a delayed return, schools will face greater challenges than they have to date in terms of the number of cases presenting and managing the fallout when an outbreak occurs.
As Covid infection rates rose in the weeks before Christmas, schools were under increasing pressure and the confirmation of the arrival of the new and more transmissible variant, which some scientists also believe spreads more easily among children, has compounded concerns.
Teaching unions have called for a review of all safety measures ahead of the reopening.
The unions and other education partners will meet Department of Education officials early next week to discuss unfolding events.
Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) CEO Páiric Clerkin said the reopening date must be kept under constant review and, if necessary, postponed for another few days, if it meant that schools were going to be safer when they returned.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie said that, based on calls they were receiving, there was an increased level of anxiety among its members.
Schools will get a further round of funding this month to support school safety measures, but the department has denied it has cut the money for PPE.
While the headline rates per pupil are down, from €25 to €15 for primary schools and from €40 to €24 in post-primary, a department spokesperson said the upcoming term was shorter, while the grants paid in September also reflected once-off costs.
“The rate of the PPE grant provided to schools for the forthcoming term is fully in line with the rate of grant funding provided in the first term. There is absolutely no question of a reduction in the rate of PPE grant funding to cover any school’s recurring PPE costs,” the spokesperson said.
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said adequate funding for PPE, sanitising and enhanced cleaning was essential and “in light of the deteriorating public health landscape, we expect Government to increase rather than reduce funding and to regularly review the effectiveness of school Covid-19 budgets”.
A spokesperson for the Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) said it would continue to monitor the situation and it expected the department to fill any emerging gaps in Covid-safety resources should they arise.