Schools in the Republic of Ireland may remain closed until the end of the month under plans being considered by Government to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Primary and secondary schools were due to reopen next Monday but the Irish Cabinet is set to consider keeping them closed for another two or three weeks.
The moves comes as 6,110 new Covid cases were recorded along with six deaths. Meanwhile, 776 patients remained in hospital last night after testing positive for Covid-19 while 70 people were in intensive care units.
A Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 will meet to discuss the escalating public health crisis, and a key focus of the meeting will be on schools.
Education Minister Norma Foley will update the Cabinet sub-committee on the latest situation regarding schools.
Party leaders and ministers will consider asking schools to remain closed to stop the spread of the virus among students, teachers and their parents.
Plans are also being discussed to keep some schools open for the children of frontline workers and those with disabilities or who are from disadvantaged areas.
A Government source said schools would be closed not because they are unsafe but to stop the movement of around a million people.
It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced all schools and colleges will close to most pupils and switch to remote learning from today in England. Schools in Scotland will shut for the rest of January.
On Monday night, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said we are going to see a significant impact on the provision of education due to the escalating spread of Covid-19.
He said there are decisions to be taken by Government on the schools issue and they will meet this week.
He spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Monday about schools. While the transmission of the virus in school-going children is still below average it is increasing at a very fast rate.
He said they were looking at the contribution schools would make in ongoing transmission.
“We have made clear that high levels of transmission pose a risk to all sort of activities,” Dr Holohan said. “We have successfully managed to protect children and education but you can see the position we are in now with very high levels of transmission.
“Those high rates now represent a risk to all of those objectives.”
Professor Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said the issue was not just what happens in schools but what happens “around the service”.
Meanwhile, ministers across all three Government parties anticipate that schools will not fully reopen next week due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases.
A Fine Gael minister told the Irish Independent: “Schools will not fully reopen next week”.
Meanwhile, a Fianna Fáil minister said they would be “very surprised” if the Government did not to keep schools closed for longer after delaying their reopening until January 11.
A Government spokesperson said: “Schools will be discussed at Cabinet committee and then Cabinet.”
“The Taoiseach had discussions with the opposition leaders today (Monday)to update them on the situation,” he added.
Meanwhile, Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin is understood to be cautious about the reopening of schools.
Ms Martin, a former schoolteacher, believes that even if Nphet recommend opening schools it will have to be done very differently to ensure teachers, pupils and their parents are kept safe.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan yesterday said he would wait to hear from Nphet.
However, Minister of State in the Department of Education Josepha Madigan insisted on Monday that there is no advice against reopening schools next week.
If schools do reopen the primary teachers’ union INTO wants them to have the flexibility to shut and switch to remote learning if Covid makes it too difficult for them to stay open.
That was part of a back-up plan presented by the union to Education Minister Norma Foley yesterday.
The union is concerned that some principals may find themselves facing high levels of Covid-related staff absence and will not be able to secure a substitute to allow them to open the school safely.
Up to now, schools had no authority to close to deal with the fallout from a Covid outbreak unless public health officials made such a recommendation.
In the first term, some schools here took a unilateral decision to shut but were forced into a U-turn by the Department of Education.
In Northern Ireland, First Minister Arlene Foster announced an extended period of remote learning for schools.
It came after ministers there met to discuss their response to the deepening coronavirus crisis. Ms Foster said the situation there was “dire”.
“The advice coming to us is that we will need to take action and that we’ll need to take action very quickly,” she said speaking ahead of the meeting.
“I was very clear that I would like to keep schools open for as long as possible but if it is the case that we do need to close schools, as we did in March of last year, I will deeply regret that, but we will of course take whatever action is needed based on the medical evidence in front of us.”