A second-level teachers' union has said schools should be allowed to close early for Christmas so that students and teachers have more time to restrict their movements before meeting elderly or vulnerable relatives.

All schools are due to close on Tuesday 22 December.

However, the Teachers' Union of Ireland has called for "serious consideration" to be given to closing schools on Friday 18 December instead.

The TUI said such a move would also boost morale.

There has been a marked fall in the number of Covid-19 outbreaks recorded in schools, according to public health data published today. 

There were 10 clusters identified in schools last week, compared to 21 the week before, and 30 and 46 in the two weeks before that.

These latest 10 outbreaks bring to 187 the total number of clusters of the virus in schools notified to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre since facilities reopened in September.

The HSPC says while these outbreaks have involved school children and school staff, transmission of the virus within the school "has not necessarily been established".

Yesterday, Minister for Education Norma Foley ruled out any elongated Christmas break for schools.

Ms Foley told an Oireachtas committee that her department had no intention at this stage of extending the Christmas break. She said it was working hard to ensure that no more school time would be missed by students.

Minister Foley said: "I'm conscious of the public health advice which is telling us that students are much better served when they are in school." 

However, the TUI has said that such a closure would be a positive signal of the department’s intention to protect the well-being of school communities.

The union’s general secretary Michael Gillespie said that recent months had been "unprecedentedly difficult and draining for school communities".

He said: "Thanks to the remarkable work of staff, schools have remained open throughout all levels of restrictions, including Level 5.

"However, stress and anxiety levels remain extremely high as a result of a range of worries and concerns that were not imaginable this time last year."

Mr Gillespie said that after an extraordinarily intensive working period, staff and students were far more fatigued than they would be during a "normal" school year.

He said a short extension of the Christmas closure period would be a significant and much needed boost to morale.

Mr Gillespie said it would also potentially allow students and teachers to restrict their movements for a longer period before meeting vulnerable relatives such as grandparents, should public health advice at the time permit such gatherings.

He said: "This would be a real, tangible action that could benefit all in the school community.

"It could also prove to be a 'stitch in time' measure that helps prevent longer absences due to burnout and exhaustion later in the school year."

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Mr Gillespie teachers returned to the classroom in August to strip out the classrooms and they had to go back in over the midterm break to clear out and change hand sanitisers because of issues raised by the department.

He said all the extra curricular activities that students normally enjoy - such as the Christmas concert - have been cancelled so students will not have assemblies or social events in the classroom to look forward to, and  that many teachers are hearing anecdotally that parents intend to take their children out of school on 18 December anyway. 

Under a standardisation agreement all schools are obliged to close for the holiday on Tuesday 22 December.

They are due to reopen on 6 January.

A GP in Co Monaghan said there "is not a huge amount of medical evidence" to support children finishing school early for Christmas, but that it makes common sense for them to finish on 18 December.

"Having children in school for an extra day-and-a-half does seem pointless", Dr Ilona Duffy said.

She also commended teachers and students for "adapting really well" to wearing masks at school.