This year's Leaving Certificate examinations are under way at schools throughout the country, with far lower numbers of students sitting individual exams compared to a normal year.

Just 50% of students intend sitting an exam in Irish, while 69% intend sitting papers in English. However, this proportion could fall even lower if some students make last minute decisions to forego an exam.

This year's 61,000 candidates were given a choice between exams or accredited grades, or both. The majority have opted for permutations involving both.

Where they sit an exam and receive an accredited grade they will be awarded whichever result is the higher out of both processes.

The exams begin this morning with English Paper 1.

Overall, 90% of candidates have registered to sit at least one exam - with the remainder opting for accredited grades only. Just under two-thirds intend sitting exams in five or more subjects.

The proportion of candidates opting for accredited grades only and to not sit an exam in a subject varies widely; from 50% in Irish to 8% in Applied Maths.

34% of students of French have opted to forego the exam, as have 30% of Art students, 26% of Geography students, and 16% of Biology students.

The State Examinations Commission will manage both the accredited grade and the exam processes.

It said that they will be run as two entirely separate systems and will be brought together only for the purpose of issuing the results, including determining the better result for those candidates who opted to receive both.

Students are sitting their exams in centres laid out to allow for social distancing. They will wear masks, and a range of other public health hygiene protocols have been put in place to ensure the safety of both students and examinations staff.

Each student will be assigned their own desk for the duration of the exams, with no one else using that desk.

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The papers that they complete will offer greater choice and contain fewer questions compared to a normal year. This is in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and the loss of learning which was caused by school closures.

Accredited grades will be prepared for all students in all subjects - regardless of whether or not the students has registered for them. This is a contingency measure for any student who becomes unable to sit an exam for both Covid and non-Covid related reasons.

In the event that a student cannot sit an exam most will automatically be awarded an accredited grade.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has wished all students starting their exams "the very best of luck" and also requested them to follow public health guidelines and limit their contacts "right up until 29 June... to ensure all students have a fair opportunity to sit their exams".

President of the teachers' union ASTI, Ann Piggott, said she wished "all the candidates sitting the written exams the very best of luck. The past two years of your school life has been challenging and you have shown tremendous resilience".

The President of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has said there is a need to evaluate the situation when exams are over and talk to students about their experiences of calculated grades.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Michael Creegan said it would be better if the leaving cert results were to be released earlier, but he accepted that the State Examinations Commission logistics of trying to put everything together is a "big, big task".

Mr Creegan, who is principal of Laurel Hill Secondary School in Limerick, said the Covid numbers in Limerick are a worry but that every effort has been made to ensure that the exams can go ahead.

Public health officials in the Limerick region said a small number of students there have become unable to sit the exams because they have contracted the virus or have been deemed close contacts of a confirmed case.

School principals in Limerick have been liaising with pupils regularly and have been urging them to be mindful of public health guidelines and to minimise their social contacts in the time leading up to the exam.

Meanwhile, exam candidates throughout the country have been advised to contact their GP if they have any doubts or concerns about any symptoms that they may develop.