Parents and students will be the targets of a new publicity campaign aimed at keeping Covid out of schools as more than 300,000 pupils return for the first time since Christmas.
The reopening is being backed up with strong messaging to parents not to send children in if they are displaying Covid-like symptoms, and not to gather at the school gates.
A video directed at Leaving Cert students will advise on issues such as the importance of wearing masks.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is encouraging schools to adopt a strict approach to congregation zones outside schools
Education Minister Norma Foley said reopening must be given “the best possible chance to get all students back as quickly as possible”.
The return will be phased and cautious, with only one-third of the school population – primary pupils from junior infants to second class and Leaving Cert students – back next Monday.
Advocacy organisations AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland said that up to 20,000 children with special needs in mainstream classes – outside those returning next Monday – had been “left behind”.
Children with more complex needs, in special schools and special classes, are already back.
Ms Foley said primary schools were being asked to deploy as many resources as possible to facilitate engagement with pupils with special needs in third to sixth classes from Monday.
Primary pupils from third to sixth class and fifth year post-primary students are pencilled in for a return on March 15 and the balance of post-primary pupils on April 12.
The gap between each phase is to allow time to assess the impact of reopening on community transmission of Covid, and implementation of the later phases will depend on public health advice.
The Department of Health and the HSE have advised that infection prevention and control measures in place in schools are adequate, once there is strict adherence.
INTO, Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI), Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and Fórsa, which represents special-needs assistants (SNAs), are facilitating the phased return, although they did not achieve all their demands.
INTO is pressing for air ventilation monitors, face masks for pupils in senior classes and regular antigen testing.
TUI president Martin Marjoram said members would “withdraw from engagement in situations where the measures and safeguards that protect them and their students are not being adhered to”.
ASTI said it would continue to work to ensure the necessary arrangements and supports were in place.
Fórsa said the only way to guarantee schools would stay open was to prioritise staff to receive the vaccine.