Thousands of children with additional needs are due to return to special schools on alternate days from next Thursday under detailed plans agreed with unions.
Children with additional needs in mainstream primary or special classes, on the other hand, will be able to return on a full-time basis from next Thursday.
This move means thousands of special needs assistants and resource teachers will be due back in primary and special schools on a full-time basis.
Mainstream teachers, however, will not be required back in the classroom until schools reopen generally.
Details of the plans are contained in Department of Education letters being sent to primary school principals on Friday.
Education sources also say there is growing hope that schools may be in a position to reopen to more students over the coming weeks if a downward trend in infection rates continues.
The department’s priority is to return special needs students in secondary schools – possibly towards the end of January – followed by sixth year students and others in February.
A full reopening of schools to all students will depend on securing public health advice on it being safe to mobilise so many pupils and teachers, according to well-placed sources.
Responding to the announcement, autism charity AsIAm said it welcomed the the interim measures agreed by education partners.
However, the charity’s chief executive Adam Harris said children in special schools need to be back to school on a full-time basis as soon as possible.
In addition, he said second level pupils with additional needs urgently need in-class tuition.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said while it supported the reopening of school for children with additional needs, this will require evidence that it is safe to do so.
“While supporting the continuity of learning remotely is far from ideal, we hope to be able to return to our classrooms fully, but it remains to be seen if the public health landscape improves enough to enable the resumption of classroom-based learning,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle
“We echo the comments of the Chief Medical Officer that now is the time for us all to do our part to help lower transmission rates.”
The department is planning webinars with school staff next with with public health specialists to “reaffirm that infection and control measures in schools are effective at this time”.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn along with HSE public health specialists are due to attend the meeting aimed at reassuring school staff over the safety measures in place.
The Department of Education letter to school principals states that the phased resumption of classes for students in special schools is needed on the basis that occupancy in school buildings and transport will be significantly reduced.
A full-time return for students with additional needs in special classes and in mainstream settings is possible, it says, due to the significantly reduced numbers in school buildings.
Risk mitigation measures which were put in place – such as social distances and pods – will remain in place, along with new requirements such as medical-grade face masks for SNAs.
Childcare will also be made available for teachers and SNAs on the basis that they are essential workers, the letter states.
It said the Department of Children has advised that there are “no capacity issues” for childcare providers to facilitate children of essential workers.