Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the Government "will - and want to - reopen schools on a phased basis in February and March".

Speaking to RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live, Mr Varadkar said: "I cannot give a definite date to parents, but the one thing that we do intend is to open education on a phased basis across February and March, starting with those kids with additional needs.

"However, I can say to parents that the decision is to leave the restrictions fully in place until 5 March so we can get cases down to a much lower level and give hospitals a chance to recover."

He said Government will continue to consult with education partners on this.

"It has to be done by agreement. We want to start with the special schools and then perhaps primary schools and exam classes," he said.

He added: "Case numbers are halving every ten days so it is reasonable that in 20 days' time it could be down to 400, but because of the new variant being more transmissible we want to open schools on a phased basis.

"We have to consult with unions and parents groups and students, but we are reasonably confident that by mid-February we will be down to case numbers that were at the same level as when schools fully reopened last September."

Earlier, the National Parents Council said parents have been left "completely in limbo" about the reopening of schools after the Taoiseach said that not all students will be back in the classroom by St Patrick's Day.

NPC CEO Aine Lynch said it was "staggering" that schools were closed in Ireland when schools in other jurisdictions have been able to remain open for certain groups

Ms Lynch said there needs to be an immediate reopening of schools for vulnerable students and clarity on the plan for the wider reopening of schools for the sake of both parents and children. 

She said there is huge confusion and concern among parents and that any plan to reopen schools should be decisive and backed up by evidence 

"Parents are really in limbo at the moment and struggling to see what the plan is. They really want certainty. I think soundbites through the media is not really helpful to parents at the moment who are trying to support their children and juggle so much in the home at e same time. They need a clear pathway of when their children are going back.

Experts say while prolonged school closures may not adversely impact students academically some groups will feel it more than others.

Dr Leah O'Toole, Assistant Professor at the Froebel Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education at Maynooth University, said she would have concerns about those who were at transitional phases of their education such as those starting primary or secondary school.

Parents have also expressed concern that school closures could continue for another two months.

Ailish Drake and her husband Conor Hourigan run Drake Hourigan Architects from their home in Limerick where they are also homeschooling their 13-year-old son Sam and 10-year-old son Michael. 

Ailish described the Taoiseach's comments at the weekend as a "bombshell" for working parents and said she did not believe homeschooling was sustainable in the long term. 

She said the couple's workload had increased due to the current restrictions and they had been finding it difficult to give support to the children, in particular their younger son who is in First Class. 

Ailish said she is concerned - if her son falls behind in the curriculum - over how the school will deal with it when it eventually returns.

"I felt it was a complete bombshell. I had thought maybe they wouldn't be back on the 1 February and they would be back at the mid-term break but when I heard after St Patrick's Day, and obviously we have Easter running very close to St Patrick's Day this year,and it just feels this is going to go on and on and while we can cope for a certain amount of weeks and deal with the stress in the house...I think long term its not sustainable.

"Where we going to be at in eight weeks down the line, I don't really know. I think that it was quite a big announcement to be dropped into a conversation over a weekend radio show. I think it's a poor way of communicating and it should have been said in a more formal way," she added.

Talks about the reopening of schools for children with additional educational needs are continuing and discussions about contingency plans for the Leaving Cert are expected to take place later this week, but it is still not clear when a timetable for the full reopening of schools will be made available.

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Additional reporting Samantha Libreri