There were more outbreaks associated with school pupils and staff in the second half of last year than in any other public setting.

The new figures come as schools reopened this morning after the Christmas holidays.

The latest data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre looks at the total number of outbreaks recorded in the fourth wave of the virus between 27 June and 31 December 2021.

While the largest number of outbreaks, 919, were recorded among families in private homes, the next highest figure was associated with school students and staff, with 514 outbreaks among these groups in the last six months of the year.

The next highest amount of outbreaks - 458 - were recorded in workplaces.

Unions representing teachers have called for additional safety measures to be implemented in schools as a matter of urgency due to the high prevalence of Covid-19.

The Minister for Education said the reopening of schools will not be without its challenges, adding that the Department will continue to support principals and boards of management.

Norma Foley said every sector of society is challenged in terms of personnel being in place, but the more important factor is "that we are opening and schools will operate to their maximum capacity from today."

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There have been around 200,000 cases of Covid-19 recorded since schools closed two weeks ago for the Christmas break.

At that time, schools were beginning to feel the effects of the coronavirus on both staff and student attendances.

Yesterday, a number of schools around the country began issuing notices that certain classes would remain closed this week.

In a statement this evening, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation General Secretary John Boyle said: "Initial feedback from members on the ground is that today was an incredibly difficult first day back, with many pupils and staff members restricting movement due to contracting the virus or being close contacts."

Mr Boyle also praised student teachers saying without their support "the situation would have been even more challenging".

The Teachers Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland have both called for the urgent provision of medical grade masks and HEPA filtration systems.

The Secondary School Students Union has said some students are terrified of returning to the classroom.

The CEO of Early Childhood Ireland said it is a "very uncertain" time for crèches and childcare services with some facing having 50% of staff off work because of close contacts or positive cases.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Teresa Heeney said most childcare services are trying to reopen this week.

"They are engaging with families to see who needs what, what kind of hours and trying their best to offer some reduced or staggered hours over the week."

Ms Heeney said crèche and childcare owners are telling her they dread their phone ringing as it might be a staff member saying they are a close contact or have tested positive.

She said they met with the Minister for Children and the Health Service Executive recently and are seeking clarification on the isolation guidance, while also requesting access to faster PCR and antigen testing.

Government keeping schools open for a 'political victory' - Murphy

Meanwhile, People Before Profit spokesperson on education Paul Murphy has said that the Government is determined to keep schools open as a "political victory".

The Dublin South West TD said that the Government has not installed HEPA filters in all classrooms and this is a "continuum of real failure" on its part.

Speaking to RTÉ's Drivetime, Mr Murphy said: "The situation today is that in the middle of the winter, the vast majority of students are going to classrooms that don't have HEPA filters."

He said that there had been an argument about whether every classroom needed a HEPA filter.

"It certainly does no harm for every classroom to have a HEPA filter and it's therefore far simpler and far more effective to say we're going to put HEPA filters in place across the schools," he said.

Mr Murphy added: "All of this is part of a continuum of real failure by the Government on schools - where they're more determined to keep the schools open as a political victory, as opposed to actually doing what's necessary to make the schools safe so that they can stay open in as safe away as is possible."