There will be no strict requirement on primary students to physically distance in classrooms when schools reopen in late August and September, according to a clarification by the Department of Education on public health advice.

The guidelines from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre state that at least one metre distance "should be maintained" by students in the classroom from third class upwards.

It says this is not a prerequisite for children in the first four years of primary school.

However, the document goes on to suggest the dividing of primary schoolchildren into smaller groups or "pods" within the class.

In this case it states that one metre distance between individuals should be maintained "where possible".

A Department of Education spokesperson has said this means that one metre distancing will not be required where schools choose to group primary school children around desks in pods.

At second level this interim advice from the HPSC recommends physical distancing of two metres - where possible - or of at least one metre between desks or between individual students and staff.

 A report issued last month found that a full reopening, with all students attending school at the same time, would not be possible with one metre distancing.

The Department of Education study found that maintaining a one metre distance between students at post-primary would mean that some year groups would only be able to return for 50% of school time.

The previous government had stated that it was working towards a full reopening of schools in the autumn, however, new Minister for Education Norma Foley stopped short of talking of a full return.

In a statement Ms Foley said she wanted schools to reopen "as fully as possible" in September.

The minister said this "interim advice" provided a platform for deep engagement with all of the school stakeholders over the coming weeks.

The guidance published today also recommends the creation of class bubbles and - within those class bubbles - "pods" or smaller groupings of students, in an attempt to limit the interaction of students with each other.

It recommends staggered break times and other measure to ensure that class groupings do not mix with each other.

"The aim of the system within the school", it states, "is that each class grouping mix only with their own class from arrival at school in the morning until departure at the end of the school day".

It suggests that schools may also consider staggered drop off and pick up times "where practical/feasible".

Read more: 
Interim guidance in full
Education minister 'keen' to reopen schools in late August, September
Latest coronavirus stories

Outside of the classroom the guidance recommends that students maintain physical distance of two metres from each other "as much as possible" and that the same distance is maintained between staff and other adults visiting the school.

The 30-page document makes detailed recommendations around hygiene and cleaning.

It says that hand washing facilities "to the greatest extent practical should be adequate to meet the needs of the school population".

It states that hand sanitiser "can be used to bridge the interval until sufficient hand washing facilities can be provided or upgraded".

It also states that warm running water "should be provided in all toilets, kitchens and other food preparation areas". This may prove difficult for schools that have only cold water in some toilets. However the document goes on to say that "if the plumbing only supplies cold water, a soap that emulsifies easily in cold water should be provided".

The Irish National Teachers Organisation has indicated that a full reopening would be possible for many schools.

General Secretary John Boyle said: "I think in the very vast majority of classes it will be possible but as you know we have some super-size classes in Ireland and maybe some small classrooms as well in very old buildings so in those situations there may have to be contingencies.

"I think that for the majority of our classes they will go back fully, they will have to stay as a bubble, they won't be able to mix with the classroom next door and even within the class, there will little pods of three or four children."