‘I’ve really seen him regress’: Families prepare for special school reopening

Many parents are relieved but there is frustration over partial reopening plans

Jane Johnstone and her son, Daniel (16) from Bridgetown, Co Wexford. He is due to return to his special school on Thursday for the first since before Christmas. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Jane Johnstone and her son, Daniel (16) from Bridgetown, Co Wexford. He is due to return to his special school on Thursday for the first since before Christmas. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

Daniel Johnstone (16) is due to return to his special school on Thursday for the first since before Christmas.

The long closure has taken its toll.

“I’ve really seen him regress,” said his mother Jane Johnstone, from Bridgetown, Co Wexford. “There is self-injurious behaviour now. He’s become much more depressed and withdrawn.

“He has some speech, but he can’t tell us how he feels, so we use colours. When I ask how he is, he says red or black . . . He feels angry and sad – that’s my perception of how he is.”

Special education will partially reopen from Thursday of this week for thousands of children with additional needs when the State’s 140-plus special schools open their doors.

They will be followed by the full return of special classes in mainstream primary schools, which are due to reopen on February 22nd.

While there is relief among many families, there is also frustration.

Disruption

Special schools will reopen with just 50 per cent student capacity. Many parents are worried that this disruption will cause further confusion on certainty for children who thrive on structure and routine

Daniel, for example will return to St Patrick’s Special School in Enniscorthy on Thursday and Friday – but will not have any school the following week. The week after that he’s due to have three days.

“He depends on school for routine and structure. When we take him away from that, he doesn’t understand the world,” she said.

“My impression is that schools and teachers want to reopen fully, but they can’t . . . Daniel really needs that full-time support. Instead, I’m worried he’ll be back to the haphazard, chaotic routine at home. He just can’t do remote learning.”

There is also puzzlement among some parents that children in special classes in mainstream schools will reopen on a full-time basis from February 22nd.

Children in special schools typically have more complex needs, yet they continue to attend school on a 50 per cent capacity basis until there is an announcement to say otherwise.

Jessica Joyce, a mother of two disabled boys from Co Galway, said the decision is “unfathomable”.

Detrimental impact

Her son Luke (14) – who has autism, a severe intellectual disability and is non-verbal – is due to return to Rosedale School on a part-time basis on Thursday.

Yet her other son Sam, who has a much milder diagnosis, will return to his special class in a mainstream primary school on a full-time basis from the week after next.

“Luke’s needs are far greater. The closure has had a really detrimental impact on him . . . He really needs routine. He’s at the point where he is very aggressive to the point of violent. He put his head through the dry wall and bedroom window. His level of anxiety is so high.”

Special schools, meanwhile, are preparing for the return of children and the need to catch up with lost learning or slowly undo some of the damage caused by school closures.

Ms Johnstone said it is an anxious time for everyone: children, staff and parents.

“We’ve sketched out what the return to school will be like on his iPad. He know’s he going back to school, but will be confused over why it’s so short,” she said.

“He’s anxious about it all. We just hope it won’t all break down again – because the one thing we know is that it’s the children who suffer.”