The Taoiseach is clear that the Leaving Cert exam will be held "by hook or by crook". But what if the medical advice says it can't be done in the normal way?
Both Leaving and Junior Cert students are rightly looking for certainty, but it's an uncertain world. Officially, they are due back in class on Monday week but nobody really believes the country's 4,000 schools and colleges will reopen that soon. The best hope is they will all be back next month, but officials have to work on various scenarios in case that's not a runner.
A number of facts need to be considered before reviewing the various possibilities. The first is that most of the official attention is focused on the Leaving Cert as the futures of 60,000 young people depend on it. The Junior Cycle, while important, is not in the same high-stakes league.
The second is that disadvantaged young people are suffering most by studying at home. Apart from not having quiet study spaces, many don't have the same access to digital technologies that middle-class students usually enjoy. As Máire O'Higgins, from Dublin's Larkin College, put it: "There is no equality of educational opportunity for DEIS (disadvantaged) students in this 'new' online school system. They do not have the daily interaction with their teachers which makes such a difference to their progress in school."
Education Minister Joe McHugh believes students need at least two weeks of school time before taking their Leaving. They certainly need time to settle the nerves, reunite with friends at a safe distance and get some real class time with their teachers. The Leaving is a fraught time anyway and students' emotional wellbeing is a key consideration whatever choice is made. If normality is not restored the possibilities are:
Option 1: Starting the Leaving on June 3 as scheduled, with classes resuming for Leaving Cert students two weeks earlier. As the virus will probably still be around, more exam centres within schools would be needed to ensure safe distances between candidates. Arrangements would have to be made to ensure candidates don't all arrive together or leave in groups. The logistics would be made slightly easier if the Junior Cycle exam were postponed. The least-worst scenario.
Option 2: Delaying the Leaving until July or August. Support would be needed from the teacher unions and school managerial bodies. It would prolong the pressure on students in an already difficult year but it might be feasible if the virus is contained by then.
Option 3: Delaying the Leaving exam until September or even later. But this would mean schools would have to delay opening for up to three weeks so the exams could go ahead. How would parents of other students react, especially the parents of nearly 70,000 children leaving primary school to enrol in second level?
Option 4: Asking teachers to prepare predicted grades for their students based on their own observations, course work, the outcome of 'mocks' and the Junior Cert. The idea is favoured by a substantial number of participants in a large survey conducted by the Irish Union of Second Level Students but is also strongly opposed by many other students.
UCC Professor Aine Hyland says that Irish teachers have no experience of predicted grade schemes as they do in the UK and elsewhere. According to one teacher, the idea would go down like a "lead balloon". He feared coming under pressure from individual parents to ensure their children did well. He also believed it would lead to challenges in the courts from students who felt their predicted grades did not match their study efforts.
Students would have to be offered an opt-in facility if that were to be avoided but what would happen if large numbers said no, they didn't want predicted grades?
If, and it's a very big if, teachers were asked to get involved in predicted grades in the interests of their students, how would they respond? "In absolute extremis, I suppose we might have to," said one, adding "but it would only be a one-off for this year."
This is the nuclear option that everyone fears, but it might come to that worst-case scenario yet.
Option 5: Let the universities and other higher education institutions run their own entrance tests. The idea has been mentioned by a few principals who complain that teaching in second-level schools has been hijacked by third-level entry requirements. "They should run their own entrance exams," said one. Universities used to have their own matriculation exams but that was in an era when far fewer went to college, as Prof Hyland pointed out. Hardly a runner.
In looking at the possibilities several things emerge. All options will hit the disadvantaged hard and consideration will have to be given as to how to lessen the impact in the interest of fairness. In addition, all students need firm decisions about their exams within the next two to three weeks. They are under enough stress without another month of uncertainty.