Republic of Ireland news

Plans abandoned to reopen schools in Republic for pupils with special needs

 A locked gate at a primary school on the north side of Dublin
Michelle Devane and James Ward, PA

The Irish government has abandoned its timetable to reopen schools for primary pupils with special needs later this week after unions rejected the plans.

The Department of Education said it will “regrettably” not be possible to due to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector.

It comes after teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) called for the postponement of the planned return for children with special education needs on Thursday.

Following a meeting on Tuesday evening, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Into) and Forsa, which represents 15,000 non-teaching education staff such as SNAs, said efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students with special education needs (SEN) have failed.

In a statement, the Department said after “unprecedented engagement” with stakeholders it had been hoped that a “shared objective” to support children with special educational needs could be reached, but there was “still no commitment” from the Into and Forsa.

Education Minister Norma Foley said she “regretted” it has not been possible to provide in-person learning “to this vulnerable cohort of children”.

“The needs of this group of students are such that no-one should be in any doubt of the importance of this goal and its urgency. We all understand how vulnerable these children are, and how much they need to be in school,” she said.

Ms Foley highlighted that the Republic of Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time and that many schools in Northern Ireland were teaching special needs pupils.

“It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here,” the Kerry TD said.

On Friday, the Department of Education said agreement had been reached with stakeholders about guidelines for a safe reopening, with a view to pupils returning to classrooms this Thursday.

But, following a webinar briefing with public health doctors on Monday, the Into called for a rethink of those plans, saying “grave” safety concerns have not been adequately addressed.

Into general secretary John Boyle said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff unconvinced the school environment was safe under current conditions.

“We are calling on the Government to avoid a confrontational approach that forces a reopening on tens of thousands of fearful staff who want to follow public health advice,” he said.

“Instead, they should continue to work with us to ensure that schools are safe for students and staff.

He added that Monday’s webinar, which attracted more than 16,000 participants, clearly demonstrated the level of fear and anxiety among school staff.

Forsa’s head of education, Andy Pike, said the Government had not won the support of special education stakeholders.

Mr Pike said: “We are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.

“It would be for the best if all parties would focus on a general reopening of schools as soon as possible, once there is an established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases and fresh public health advice that it is safe to do so,” he added.

Adam Harris, founder of As I Am, said children with additional needs and their families have already suffered and will continue to do so each day school is closed.

“It’s not a cause for celebration, it’s a time for deep reflection,” he said.

“For the third time, it has been decided by others that children with disabilities do not have a right to an essential service. That all their preparation to return to school, which will now cause such confusion and anxiety, has been in vain.

“That their constitutional right to an appropriate education is somehow suspended. That the challenges and failures of last year are to be repeated. We must acknowledge that this is a high-risk strategy which does seriously impact on long term quality of life.”

Following the trade union’s announcement Labour’s education spokesman Aodhan O Riordian reiterated his call for Taoiseach Micheal Martin to intervene in the ongoing row.

He said Ms Foley had handled the reopening of schools for SEN students in a “shambolic way” and that a failure to work with trade unions had resulted in a “total lack of confidence” in their safety if they return to classrooms.

“A flexible approach with discretion for individual schools is now needed to allow local circumstances and the needs of individual students to be considered in any reopening plan,” Mr O Riordain said.

“Children with special needs are regressing rapidly, and their parents are at breaking point,” he added. “This is just not good enough.”

People Before Profit TD Brid Smith called on the Education Minister to stop the propaganda war against teachers and SNAs and instead deal with the substantial issues and concerns raised by workers.

Ms Smith said: “The attempt by the government was effectively an attempt to set parents of vulnerable children at odds with teachers and SNAs when the blame for the present fiasco lay squarely at the feet of the department and Norma Foley TD.

“The attempt to open in a one size fits all fashion failed two weeks ago and its failing again.”

“Trying to bully teachers or SNAs to fit the Government plan is not acceptable,” she added.

The unions will meet on Wednesday to assess the situation further.

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