Government abandons plans to reopen special schools this week

Unions ‘refused to accept advice provided by public health specialists’, says Norma Foley

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that special schools and classes would remain closed and said the unions’ stance was ‘regrettable’. File photograph: iStock

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that special schools and classes would remain closed and said the unions’ stance was ‘regrettable’. File photograph: iStock

 

The Government has been forced to abandon plans to reopen special schools and classes this week for thousands of children with additional needs following safety concerns among staff unions.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants, said efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open to students had “failed”.

Both unions urged the Government to postpone the resumption of special education until “further discussions can achieve improved safety measures including Covid testing, leading to the resumption of all school services”.

Minister for Education Norma Foley confirmed that a return to school was “regrettably not possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector”.

She said there had been “unprecedented engagement” with unions and public health experts who reaffirmed that schools with risk mitigation measures were a safe environment for staff and students.

“Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time,” she said.

She said it was “the first time unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists”.

Ms Foley added that the INTO represented teachers on both sides of the Border.

“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,” she said.

Unions, however, said a fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging which had left many school staff “totally unconvinced” that the school environment was safe under current conditions.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said an education department webinar, which attracted more than 16,000 participants, clearly demonstrated the level of “fear and anxiety among school staff”.

Fórsa’s head of education, Andy Pike said, “The Government hasn’t won the support of special education stakeholders. I’m sure this was not the intention, but we are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.”

Union sources say the focus of reopening schools will now switch to all schools reopening on February 1st, assuming virus transmission rates continue on a downward trajectory.

Ministers, however, say they will continue engaging with unions with a view to reopening schools as soon as possible.

Four advocacy groups – AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland – called for “urgent interim measures” for children who cannot engage in remote learning, such as in-home supports from a teacher or special needs assistant.

Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm, said there was a constitutional obligation to ensure appropriate education is put in place for vulnerable children.

“What we need now is transparency and openness from stakeholders on how we achieve a return to school,” he said.

“We have to place vulnerable young people at the centre of that discussion. We need essential workers to provide essential services. Children’s constitutional rights to education have not been suspended. The department and stakeholders have an obligation to provide this service.”

Unions said a fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff “totally unconvinced” that the school environment was safe. They also said the plans to reopen were “rushed” and “premature”.

Union leaders are understood to have been positive about the prospects of special education reopening after agreeing a framework for reopening of schools on Friday last subject to safety assurances.

However, the depth of health concern among union members in recent days led to their leadership calling for a postponement.

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