NPHET has recommended an end to mandatory mask-wearing in schools. It is understood it has also recommended to Government a loosening of some classroom social distancing measures, such as arranging children into 'pods' or small groups.

There are mixed views in school communities.

The Joint Managerial Body - which represents managers of most of the country's second-level schools - has welcomed the news. It said anything that would allow for a better social and educational experience for students, subject to medical advice, was to be welcomed.

However the Teachers' Union of Ireland earlier this week called for serious consideration to be given to maintaining mitigation measures currently in place, including the wearing of masks, for the foreseeable future.

At Athy Community College, principal Richard Daly and fifth year students appear keen for things to return to something like normal, but they are cautious too.

In terms of the restrictions he most wants to see the back of, mask wearing is close to the top, but he would like to see other measures relaxed too.

"I would love to see the distance between students diminishing. We are in a second-level setting so many of our students are vaccinated. I would love to see that coming in so that we could do we go back to group work," he said.

Principal Richard Daly

Mr Daly said he would he would like to see "some variations" on masks and suggested perhaps abandoning them in the classroom, but keeping them for circulation in public areas of schools, where students mingle beyond their immediate social groups.

He said: "Teaching and learning is all about communication, and masks have severely hampered that.

"Not being able to see the faces and the reactions of students, you're only looking at eyes so you don't know whether you are getting through with the message. You don't see the smiles of reactions from literature and you don't see the frowns."

He said the well-being of students and their emotional growth has been stunted over the past two years.

"They need to get back to proximity, to sharing things and to having that excitement of youth and being able to see each other faces as well would be wonderful," he said.

But this school principal's hopes are tempered by the trauma that has been suffered within his school community. There is a difficult road ahead, he feels.

"We have unfortunately, like so many other schools, been visited by tragedy, and both students and staff members have lost family members due to Covid and that carries a huge toll for all of us here.

"We have to work to try and reestablish our closeness and to know that we are all there to support each other. That's probably the dichotomy and difficulty that we have at the moment.

"We want to reestablish connections, but we need to be sure that the school is safe."

Fifth year students who spoke to RTÉ News share the views expressed by their school principal. They are keen to see change, but they are nervous too, and mindful.

Most feel that mask-wearing should no longer be mandatory. Jack Stynes said students should have the choice, and if that was the case, what would he do?

"I probably wouldn't wear it because sometimes it does get kind of hot in the classroom and I prefer to go back to the way things were without masks," he said.

Lara Guppy agrees. "It shouldn't really be mandatory anymore because we've gotten a lot of us are vaccinated and everything," she said.

So would she dump the mask if she could? "I feel like I personally would wear a mask in the halls, because it's crowded and I don't see [those students] all the time. But in classes we should get the option to take it off."

Amy Hickey said that in corridors and at lunchtime in the hall, with a wider group of students, she would prefer to stay masked.

But students at Athy Community College are longing for other changes too.

"Our desks are very spaced out and I'd like to see the desks put back together to do more group work," said Sean Pereira.

Zoe Ball said she is longing to have proper interaction with her classmates again.

"Not just verbally, but like physically, like sharing notes or if someone doesn't have a book you can share your book," she said.

On masks she is more reticent. "I think I'd feel a bit safer if the masks were kept just a little bit longer because I know a good few people who came down with Covid and I think it would just be a bit safer to just have them a bit longer."

Even though we are sitting outdoors, Ciara Walsh prefers to keep her mask on while we all talk together. While she does favour choice now, she said she would rather continue to wear her mask for the moment.

"If we get rid of the masks the numbers are just going to go up again. I don’t think it is such a smart thing to do," she said.

Amy too, even though she too favours choice, feels that she would still wear a mask. "I feel like I've gotten so used to it now. I feel it would be a bit weird if I didn't have it on all day," she said.

Would Liam Keane continue to wear a mask if it was not mandatory?

"At this point I don’t think I would. It’s been two years. It would be nice not to have to wear a mask in class," he said. A broad smile breaks across Liam’s face as he considers the prospect.

John Dooley speaks for many when he talks about the other things he wants back too.

"I suppose having more freedom. Just being able to do more, not be so separated, just be closer together again and work with each other again."