Partial reopening of special schools ‘a mixed day’ for families

Parents worry that limited return to class may be even more disruptive for children

Teacher Linda Ward Hanlon with seven-year-old Charlie Carr. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times

Teacher Linda Ward Hanlon with seven-year-old Charlie Carr. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times

 

Charlie Carr (7) was up early on Thursday morning and waiting at his front door with his Avengers lunchbox and red raincoat.

“He was happy out, laughing away, all ready to go and delighted to see the school bus finally arrive,” says his mother Jackie Carr from Oranmore, Co Galway.

While it was a huge relief to see him back at Rosedale Special School for the first time since before Christmas, she says there is also frustration.

“The teachers and special needs assistants there are invaluable. We’d be lost without them,” she says. “But after today, he won’t be back to school until Tuesday. That’s because it’s a partial reopening. He won’t understand why he can’t go back tomorrow. That’s where the kicking, screaming and scratching will start all over again.”

Like many parents of children with additional needs, who thrive on structure and routine, she says her son has regressed during the school closures.

“We’ve seen far more meltdowns . . . He throws himself on the ground, rocks back and forth, puts his hands over his head. I worry that it will be the same tomorrow when he realises he can’t go. He’ll bring his lunchbag and coat with him and wrap it around his head. He’ll be crying and sobbing. It’s heart-breaking.”

In all, about 3,000 children are returning to the State’s 124 special schools over the coming days which are reopening at 50 per cent capacity.

They will be followed by thousands of children with additional needs who attend special classes in mainstream primary and secondary schools; they are due to reopen fully from February 22nd.

Advocacy organisations for children – including autism charity AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland, Inclusion Ireland – said the partial reopening was a “ mixed day” for families.

They called on the Government and education stakeholders to prioritise the full restoration of education for all students with special educational needs.

“We have had numerous reports from parents that a partial return – every second day at 50 per cent provision – will be even more disruptive for their children due to the lack of routine,” said a spokesman for the group, which also includes the Children’s Rights Alliance, Barnardos and the National Parents Council.

Fourteen-year-old Áine Kineen with teacher Paula Loughney in. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times
Fourteen-year-old Áine Kineen with teacher Paula Loughney. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times

Áine Kineen is one of those children who will take time to adjust, says her mother Breffini Kilgannon.

The 14-year-old who attends Rosedale is non-verbal with a diagnosis of spastic quadroplegia.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” says Kilgannon. “Any kind of routine will be out the window, and she can’t really express how she’s feeling.”

While children in special schools – who typically have more complex needs – are attending school on a 50 per cent capacity, children in special classes in mainstream schools will be back full time.

Jessica Joyce, a mother of two disabled boys from Co Galway, says she cannot understand why different rules will apply.

Teacher Paula Kelly with Luke Joyce (14). Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times
Teacher Paula Kelly with Luke Joyce (14). Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy/The Irish Times

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.”

Some parents at Rosedale had an hour-long session online with Minister for Education Norma Foley on Wednesday evening.

While they said she was sympathetic and pledged to do everything to get schools fully reopened, she was unable to say when this would happen.

“You hope that people in authority are listening,” says Carr. “That’s why we tell our story. When you have a child with special needs, everything is a fight. It shouldn’t be.”