The Ombudsman for Children has urged the Government to avoid a blanket closure of schools due to the disproportionately negative effect it would have on children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Speaking in advance of today's meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19, Dr Niall Muldoon said: "I would urge members of the Cabinet sub-committee and Nphet, to consider a wide range of options around the education of children. The simple blanket closure of all schools, as happened in March last year, is not a viable option because of the massive impact it will have on our children and their families.
"Without a doubt children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once more be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 school closures, therefore any long-term measures to reduce transmission in society must consider the substantial negative impact on these groups."
"Education is about more than learning, it is about developing personalities, talents, and abilities of children to reach their greatest potential while also facilitating mental health, play and recreation.
"I would urge all of these decision-makers to look to how they might generate a nuanced response and facilitate our vulnerable children to attend school, as well as how to properly support those who engage in home learning.
Labour has called on the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to find a path to facilitate in-class tuition for Leaving Cert students who wish to avail themselves of such provision.
The party's education spokesman Aodhan Ó Riordain said teachers and students throughout the country were concerned about the impact of continued school closures, and said in-class teaching should be an option for students.
The call comes as uncertainty remains regarding the return to schools, which are due to reopen on Monday.
The Government is considering shutting schools for the rest of the month as Covid-19 cases continue to surge.
The Government's Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 was meeting to discuss the matter on Tuesday afternoon.
The leaders of the coalition parties, Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Tanaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Green Party leader and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan, and a number of other ministers were expected to participate in the discussion.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said it is likely that a decision on whether to reopen schools will be made when Cabinet meets on Wednesday.
Mr O Riordain said: "It now looks like schools will remain closed for the month of January. If this is the case, a solution must be found to facilitate the option of in-school teaching for the Leaving Cert class of 2021 during the January lockdown.
"I'm calling on the Minister for Education to urge Nphet and the Department to investigate the possibility of in-class tuition for Leaving Cert students who wish to avail of it.
Principals demand clarity on schools reopening to reassure 'terrified' parents and staff https://t.co/DDLtGwA3n9— EchoLive.ie (@echolivecork) January 5, 2021
"Teachers and students throughout the country are concerned about the impact of continued school closures, and in-class teaching should be an option for students.
"The class of 2021 have already missed out on 11 weeks of classroom tuition in 2020, and, potentially, will miss another four weeks this year. This is putting this year's cohort at a disadvantage of 16 weeks of in-class education."
Mr O Riordain added that "a middle ground" needed to be found between full closure and full reopening.
"There must be efforts made to facilitate schools who believe they can deliver some in-class tuition. It may be a logistical challenge for many but if a school opts in they should be facilitated by the Department," he said.
"Consideration must be given to the potential impact of full closure on disadvantaged students, students with additional needs and the children of frontline workers.
"Young people over 16 are not legally required to be in school, so many at-risk students could be lost to the system entirely in a long-term lockdown scenario.
"If they are Leaving Cert students, they are now at risk of dropping out. We must do everything we can to support them within the school system."
Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall urged the Government not to reopen the schools next week.
"The sooner schools and parents know what's planned for next week and the coming weeks the better," she told RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland.
"The responsibility on the minister goes beyond that. I think it's very important she sets out an education plan now for the coming weeks if the schools are not to reopen because education needs to continue.
"There needs to be provision made for disadvantaged and vulnerable children and children with special needs.
"There is also the issue of children of parents who provide essential services. We can't have a repeat of what happened last year where large numbers of people are left with no option but to take time off work."
Ms Shortall added that a structured remote learning education service must be established.
Last week, the Government made the decision to postpone the reopening of schools following the Christmas break until January 11 as cases of Covid-19 surged.
Monday saw a record 6,110 new cases of the virus reported by the Department of Health. There were also six more deaths linked to coronavirus.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan voiced his concern about the ongoing provision of key services such as schools because of the high levels of community transmission.
The HSE is predicting that case numbers will reach more than 7,000 this week.