Schools could be closed for at least five weeks because of the coronavirus crisis.
The two-week shutdown, starting today, is likely to extend into and through the scheduled Easter holidays, which would mean schools not re-opening until Monday, April 20, at the earliest.
The entire education system, from pre-primary to third-level, has closed for face-to face classes until at least March 29 in order to minimise social contact and restrict and slow down spread of the disease.
But with growing evidence of transmission of the infection within the community, many more cases are expected to emerge, and Education Minister Joe McHugh said the situation would be under ongoing review, flagging the possibility that the date could change.
After a briefing yesterday with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and other public health officials, representatives of the education community do not envisage that schools will be reopening at the end of March.
The closure of schools presents huge challenges for parents of young children, who have to take time off to care for them, as well as for schools in trying ensure a continuity of education.
The Department of Education has asked schools, universities and other higher and further education colleges to use online resources and online lessons, where possible, but that will be a challenge for those who have a poor broadband connection, and impossible for those with none at all.
The department has also asked schools to prioritise supporting exam classes to continue to prepare for the State exams, but a big question mark now hangs over the June exams.
Although the timing of the closure announcements took the system by surprise, schools had been preparing and had drawn up detailed contingency plans, including advising students and teachers to bring books and other materials home. Some schools have given pupils work to do over the next fortnight and, where possible, they will use virtual learning platforms to maintain teaching and learning activities and communications between teachers and pupils and parents.
However, while second-level schools are geared for online learning, most primary schools do not have communication platforms with students, although many have come up with innovative ways to keep teaching and learning going.
Universities and other higher education colleges have also ceased physical classes and are switching to online teaching, although campuses will remain open for certain activities, with much reduced staffing levels.
The department said they could make arrangements for teaching and learning and other activities in line with their business continuity plans and contingency planning.
Arrangements vary between colleges with, for instance, University of Limerick closing the campus to all staff and students and limiting access for a core skeleton staff to maintain essential services.
The UCD campus will remain operational for those whose jobs or research require them to be physically present, although it expects most students to be absent and many employees working from home.
Its library and student centre will remain open, although limits will be placed on the number of people present. It will also provide a reduced catering service.
At Trinity College Dublin, the campus is effectively closed to students unless they are residents, staff may enter and leave the campus, postgraduate students working on critical research projects will also be able to enter the campus if they can show email permission from their supervisors. Those in business-critical services will also be able to gain entry. Contingency planning in higher education includes alternatives to traditional exams, which will vary, and the details of which are still being finalised.
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