Junior Certificate exams would have to be dropped so Leaving Cert exams can take place in the summer, under proposals being examined to avoid predicted grades for teachers and senior students.
However, the likelihood of any Leaving Cert exams taking place will depend on how soon pupils are brought back to the classroom.
Further meetings on the Leaving Cert are due to be held this week after discussions last Wednesday and Friday with teachers, Department of Education officials and the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
Consideration was given to how oral and practical exams will be facilitated, with initial deadlines for these looming and now likely to be extended. Education partners are said to be keen for these to take place so students would be graded on more than a single exam paper in the summer.
Sources close to parties involved in the meetings said it was looking increasingly likely that Leaving Cert exams will happen instead of predicted grades if students can return to school soon and classrooms can be kept open until the end of the academic year.
This is despite calls from students for a predicted grades model to be considered. They are worried because this year's Leaving Cert group has already missed 15 weeks of in-class learning since last year due to Covid.
Teachers want to avoid a scenario where students are in direct competition with each other for class rankings when working towards calculated or predicted grades. They feel exams can happen fairly if exam papers are adjusted, with students given greater choice within questions to make up for lost learning time.
The Department of Education is also keen to avoid predicted grades and a repeat of the legal challenges brought at the end of last year's process. Decisions are expected on these before exams are due to take place in June.
"If classrooms can open in February, and stay open, it's hard to see how a Leaving Cert would not happen," a source said. "But if we get to St Patrick's Day and everyone is still at home, things will get more difficult."
SEC chief executive Andrea Feeney and Department of Education assistant general secretary Dalton Tatton, who has a responsibility for curriculum and assessment, are said to have played a key role in last week's meetings. Sources said this demonstrates an appetite for exams to go ahead.
"There is not much hunger in the room for predicted grades," a source told the Sunday Independent.
"Exams are seen as a fairer way of grading pupils because that has always been how it was done. But that is only fair if we can make sure the other forms of assessment can take place too and there may be some difficulty around those if schools can't reopen sooner rather than later."
Another source said the exams are still likely to happen this summer "but not necessarily on the first Wednesday in June, it may well be later that month".
Holding Leaving Cert and Junior Cert exams simultaneously is seen as a step too far for many schools because of the extra requirements likely to be in place to make schools safe.
One option expected to be given serious consideration this week is tasking teachers to draw up an end-of-year report for each third-year student that could be given some form of "academic standing".
The report would assess pupil performance and engagement over the entire Junior Cycle, a source said.
"It's thought schools just wouldn't have the footprint needed to do the two together," said the source, referring to the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams.
Students sitting exams will need desks "to be spaced out further this year than they might otherwise be, so the idea of everyone going to the gym or a big hall for the exams is unlikely to happen and people will have to be spread out through the school.
"This means there will need to be more examiners or supervisors for the Leaving Cert group. Then there will be pupils with extra needs. Some may have vulnerable health conditions and may need to be kept away from the year group.
"There are other ways of looking after the Junior Cert that can be considered, with precedent given to the Leaving Cert."
Talks on holding exams are happening alongside separate discussions on the reopening of schools. Many feel the return of schools hinges on public health teams being able to cope with community outbreaks and having effective contact tracing in place.
Michael Cregan of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) said students need to return to the classroom. "There needs to be a plan laying out clear parameters so students and teachers know what they will have to do if the virus shuts schools again, preventing exams from happening," he said.
The INTO and Fórsa, which represents classroom SNAs, said they are committed to the earliest possible resumption of school once members feel safe. The ASTI said it is happy to keep engaging in the talks.
The TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said: "We want Covid to be kept out of schools so they can reopen safely."