Government abandons plans to reopen schools for children with special educational needs
"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."
The government has abandoned plans for a phased reopening of schools for children with special education needs (SEN).
In a statement issued on Tuesday night, the Department of Education said a phased return for children with SEN to in-school learning on Thursday "would regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of cooperation by key staff unions in the primary sector".
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants, said government efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students with SEN had failed.
Both unions had called on the government to postpone the resumption of school-based SEN services until further discussions can achieve improved safety measures, including Covid testing, leading to the resumption of all school services.
The Department of Education said it was the position of public health officials that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provided a safe environment for staff and students.
While the general advice is that people stay at home, the department said this does not apply to essential workers providing an essential service. It considered that schools could reopen for priority groups such as special needs children who are unable to engage in remote teaching, as school closures has had significant impacts on this group.
INTO General Secretary John Boyle said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions.
Minster for Education Norma Foley said it was "regrettable" that in person teaching to SEN students could not be provided in Ireland.
“It is hugely important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children, and I regret that that this has not been possible," Foley said.
"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.
“The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well articulated, and I, along with my officials have listened carefully at every stage of this process. I have full confidence in our public health advice which, at all times, has underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe. This means that we know that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the reopening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
“Ireland is an outlier in the European Union 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 per cent 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.
“We have provided guidance and flexibility in relation to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19, to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexibility for schools to manage this situation and return to in-person learning over the coming days, to organise and manage their staffing in this context.
“The INTO represents teachers both here and in Northern Ireland. Many schools in the North are currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs. It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here.
“The Government has sought to agree an approach balancing the need to support our most vulnerable children while addressing the concerns of staff. We will now need to consider how best to proceed in the interests of children and their families. The needs of our most vulnerable young people are at stake here, and I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that they can be restored to the in-person learning that they need as immediately as possible."