No return to school for kids with special needs

Schools were to partially reopen on Thursday
  • Deborah Condon

Children with special needs will not return to school on January 21, the Department of Education has confirmed.

The department had announced plans to reopen schools to children with special educational needs this Thursday, however two of the unions involved had expressed major concern about these plans.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants (SNAs), had insisted that Government efforts to reassure staff that a return to school was safe "had failed".

The unions said that there had been "conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions".

In a statement on Tuesday night, the Minister for Health, Norma Foley and the Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan, confirmed that Thursday's reopening would not now happen.

They insisted that there had been "unprecedented engagement with primary and special education stakeholders", which included "consistent, frequent and ongoing engagement at ministerial and official level with education partners, including teacher and SNA unions, over the last two weeks, since the initial pause was requested by stakeholders".

Ministers Foley and Madigan said that it had explained to unions how they would address their concerns and a webinar held by the Department of Health's deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, "reaffirmed clearly that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students".

Minister Foley pointed out that Ireland "is an outlier in the EU in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time".

"We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives, and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs.

"This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50% capacity, to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage in any way with remote learning," she said.

She also noted that the INTO represents teachers in both the Republic and Northern Ireland and in the North, INTO members are "currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs".

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland on Wednesday morning, INTO general secretary, John Boyle, highlighted that teachers have "very legitimate fears" around going back to school when most of society is being told to stay at home.

He insisted that the union had not instructed its members not to go to work on Thursday, adding that most would have if instructed to by Minister Foley.

However, speaking on the same programme, Minister Foley described it as "disingenuous" of Mr Boyle to suggest that the union had not instructed its members not to return to work on Thursday. She said that both the INTO and Fórsa had made it clear that they were not happy to accept the public health advice that had been provided, or accept additional safety measures that had been offered.

Both the department and the unions have said they are willing to engage further on this issue.

Meanwhile, advocacy organisations for children with special educational needs have again expressed their disappointment with how this issue has been handled.

Speaking on behalf of four organisations, AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland, a spokesperson called for the interests of the affected children to be put first.

"The manner in which this issue is being dealt with, with u-turns, mixed messages and false dawns, needs to stop. The department and education stakeholders need to get this sorted once and for all. Our most vulnerable students, children with disabilities and special educational needs, their families and their carers have been almost completely forgotten about in this row," the spokesperson said.


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