In a major U-turn, the Minister for Education has said that all schools will remain closed from January 11.
On January 6, the Government announced that schools were to close until the end of the month as a result of the current surge in COVID-19 cases. However, special schools and classes were to reopen on January 11, while Leaving Cert students were to attend for three days a week from that date.
This move was immediately criticised by some, who questioned how it could be considered safe to send some children to school during the current stage of the pandemic.
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said that it had not been consulted before the Government made its announcement and it had not been provided with "a credible level of assurance by the Government that schools will be safe places next week".
As a result, it directed its members not to cooperate with the arrangements, and to instead teach remotely.
The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) also said that it was not consulted prior to the January 6 announcement, and it too expressed serious concern about the "health and safety risks and logistical problems posed by the move".
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) also said that it was not consulted on the decision to provide face-to-face education for children with special educational needs, "when virtually everyone else in the country was being forced to stay at home in a frantic effort to flatten the curve".
Many parents and students also expressed concern about the plan, however, just one day after the announcement, the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, said that all schools will now remain closed from January 11.
She insisted that there had been "continuous engagement with education partners on this matter since Monday, building on weekly engagement between partners and public health throughout the school year". She also said that the decision made on January 6 "was supported by the public health advice available to Government".
"It is with regret that I announce that, despite the confirmation by public health that schools remain safe, that children in special schools and special classes and Leaving Certificate students will not be extended in-person learning. My department has engaged with the unions and public health officials with a view to maintaining on site learning for this vulnerable group of students," Minister Foley commented.
She said that it remains her "strong belief" that this period of time is crucial for the mental wellbeing of all children with special needs.
"I also felt it was the right thing to extend in-class teaching to our Leaving Certificate students, who are approaching a crucial time in their exam year. Unfortunately I am left with no alternative but to pause the limited reopening on Monday to allow further engagement with all education stakeholders," she added.
While this announcement was welcomed by unions and others, organisations representing children with special educational needs expressed their disappointment. According to the national autism charity, AsIAm, families have been left "reeling" by the news.
AsIAm CEO, Adam Harris, said that over 18,000 young people with special education needs have "once again been left behind in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic". He insisted that the loss of in-school support will have a major long-term developmental impact on these children.
"We know that 61% of autistic young people lost key skills in areas such as communication, social interaction, self-regulation and personal care during the last lockdown period.
"Now, families worry about what further regression and distress will be experienced during another potentially lengthy closure period with no plan on how these children can be supported by the State," Mr Harris added.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.