The Northern Ireland Assembly is likely to be recalled ahead of schedule to discuss the mounting Covid crisis in schools.
A petition of recall was submitted by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, and has been supported by the SDLP.
The Alliance Party also supported the move.
The Assembly is not due to meet again until January 17, but by that stage schools will have been back for over two weeks.
There are already fears that class closures due to Covid-related absences amongst both staff and pupils will dominate the early weeks of the new term as the number of positive cases in the community continues to rise.
Mr Sheehan, Sinn Fein’s education spokesperson, said the Education Minister must ensure a safe return to school plan which ‘puts the safety of children, parents and school staff first’.
“The priority for everyone needs to be on ensuring that our schools can function safely and that staff, children and parents are protected,” Mr Sheehan said after tabling a recall petition to discuss the safe return of school.
“The Omicron variant and rising cases is increasing the pressure on school staff.
“The Education Minister needs to come to the Assembly to set out a clear plan for schools returning which puts the safety of pupils, teachers and parents first and deals with the pressures on school staff caused by rising infection rates.”
The SDLP said it would welcome the opportunity to highlight the challenges currently being experienced in schools as a result of Covid-19.
Education spokesperson Daniel McCrossan said discussions over the lack of planning from Education Minister Michelle McIlveen and her department are necessary as pupils return to the same guidelines as before Christmas despite the growing number of positive cases and the continued lack of substitute teachers.
Mr McCrossan said he has consistently highlighted the concerns of school leaders and parents and wrote to Ms McIlveen again this week to stress the seriousness of the situation.
“I have been spelling out the dire situation developing in our schools for some months,” he said.
“I have repeated the concerns expressed to me by school leaders and parents and despite multiple warnings nothing was done to mitigate the situation in schools.
"It’s highly regrettable we now find ourselves in this position, but it’s down to lack of leadership from DUP Education Minister Michelle McIlveen and her department.”
Mr McCrossan said it was essential that Ms McIlveen appears before the Assembly.
He added: “Time and time again we have seen principals left to make last minute decisions on how best to protect pupils from the virus due to a lack of direction from the minister and her department.
“We are two years into this pandemic and it seems that no lessons have been learned. I have once again written to Minister McIlveen calling on her to put an emergency plan in place to ensure our young people can continue with their education, while also doing everything we can to keep them safe.
“If we are going to keep our schools open safely we need to see a reserve list of teachers and education staff drawn up to replace those who are forced into isolation and a wide-scale review of the mitigations currently in place, including ventilation where we have seen significant movement in other jurisdictions, but continued foot dragging here.
"Doing nothing was never an option and I hope this recall will force Minister McIlveen to get her head out of the sand and listen to the pleas of our school leaders and parents.”
The Education Minister has maintained that it remains a priority to keep schools open, but added: “There are a number of scenarios where schools can use remote learning, particularly where they are experiencing staff shortages and they haven’t been able to secure sufficient cover.”
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, chair of Stormont's Education Committee, said while his party supported an Assembly recall petition to bring the Minister to the chamber, many pupils had already returned without appropriate actions being taken or plans outlined by the Department of Education.
“The priority is school-based learning for all our children and young people but that must be in a safe manner,” he said.
“The Education Minister was asked at the Education Committee on December 17 what action she is taking to enhance ventilation in schools, as we know that has a major role to play in the fight against an airborne virus such as COVID.
“Urgent action is also needed from the Minister to address the staff shortage crisis to cover the high level of staff absences being experienced across schools in NI. We also need clearer guidance from the Department on whether large gatherings such as open days can proceed and what support there is if remote learning becomes a necessity.”
Both the NAHT and the NASUWT teaching unions have urged the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Education to meet with members to discuss the concerns over safety and guidance.
The Department said: “Departmental officials meet regularly with Teacher unions and last met on December 31.
“No formal request for a further meeting has been received.”
Unions were said to be ‘disappointed’ with that meeting on New Year’s Eve, with the Department stance remaining that there would be no changes to guidelines ahead of the new school term.