Government to focus on special needs supports while schools remain closed – Donohoe

‘Sense of devastation’ for families as classes ‘stripped away’, says head of autism support charity

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times/ File

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times/ File

 

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has said that the Government will focus on how special needs and vulnerable students will be supported while schools remain closed.

On Friday morning, the Minister said the Government had reversed its decision on the opening of schools next week as to do would have required the “absolute involvement” of teachers.

Minister for Education Norma Foley had engaged in numerous discussions with the unions and the Government had gone ahead with its announcement with the expectation of agreement being reached.

It was now important to focus on the welfare of children and their needs and to ensure that remote learning met with their expectations, Mr Donohoe told Newstalk Breakfast.

A decision on whether the Leaving Cert in 2021 would go ahead in the traditional format needed to be approached “in a calm and judicious manner,” he said.

The Minister defended the pace of the vaccination programme and said it was dependent on the availability of the vaccine, what could change the pace was if there was approval for further vaccines.

It was important for businesses to be aware that there would be “significant contingency supports” available.

Mr Donohoe’s comments come after the Government reversed its decision to partially reopen schools in the State from Monday.

The Government also abandoned plans to bring Leaving Certificate students into class for three days a week from next week amid mounting opposition from teachers and principals. The move is pending “further engagement with all education stakeholders”, said Minister for Education Norma Foley.

The U-turn came less than 24 hours after the plan to bring up to 60,000 Leaving Cert students and an estimated 18,000 pupils in special schools and special classes back to school next week was announced at a Government briefing on new lockdown measures. The Government said the plan was for all other children to be taught remotely.

In a statement on Thursday night, Ms Foley confirmed all schools would now remain closed from Monday January 11th.

From this date, all students, including children with special needs, “will resort to a programme of remote learning in line with the rest of the Government restrictions”.

Ms Foley’s statement came after confirmation by the two main secondary school teachers’ unions that they would not be co-operating with the initial plan to reopen schools on Monday.

‘Huge shock’

On Friday, an autism support charity said the decision reversal came as a “huge shock”.

“Up to last night our families were preparing” (for a return to school), chief executive of the autism support charity As I am, Adam Harris, said. There was a “sense of devastation” that this much needed support was being “stripped away”, he said.

Mr Harris called for therapeutic supports for the families of children with autism for whom remote learning does not work.

Mr Harris told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that the decision on Thursday night was a missed opportunity for children with special needs.

He pointed out that 61 per cent of children with autism lost key skills during the last lockdown. Remote learning does not work and “they need in-school support,” he said.

On Friday, Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called on the Government to make a decision on the Leaving Certificate 2021.

Mr Ó Ríordáin pointed out that every part of the UK had made a call on state exams. “The call has to be made in February,” he told Newstalk Breakfast.

“Are we doing all of this (school closures) in favour of a written exam in the summer?”

Leaving Cert students had missed 11 weeks of school last year and there was no guarantee that they were going to be back in school by mid term or by St Patrick’s Day, said Mr Ó Ríordáin.

He said students teachers and parents did not want to be this situation “but the numbers have exploded”.

Mr O Ríordáin said parents had been prepared “to vote with their feet” and their children would not have returned to school next week.

He went on to criticise the Government for not consulting fully with unions prior to making the initial decision to keep schools open three days a week for Leaving Cert students and for not getting “a specific sign off” from Nphet.

The president of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), Ann Piggott, told the same programme that she thought people were relieved at the Government’s “U-turn” on the return to school.

It would be better for schools to remain closed for two weeks and then to look at the situation again if the number of Covid cases had begun to reduce, she said.

The largest managerial body for secondary schools, meanwhile, said it supported Minister Foley’s decision to postpone the reopening of our schools for specific groups of students from Monday next, pending further engagement with the education partners.

"Our students will be provided with a programme of remote teaching and learning until schools can be safely and fully reopened, and we would hope that this can occur in as timely a manner as possible. We look forward to working with the Minister and the relevant stakeholders to this effect," said John Curtis, the JMB's general secretary.