Reopening schools for special needs pupils to be prioritised, says Minister

Plans being examined to provide support for vulnerable families during school closures

 A spokeman for Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was impossible to say at this point how long school closures would last. Photograph: Julien Behal

A spokeman for Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was impossible to say at this point how long school closures would last. Photograph: Julien Behal


Reopening schools for special needs pupils will be prioritised ahead of other students, Minister for Education Norma Foley has told disability advocacy groups.

Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and AsIAm met with Ms Foley and Department of Education officials on Monday afternoon where they urged that special schools and classes should reopen by Monday, January 18th.

If this was not possible, they said a range of interim supports would be needed – such as home tuition and other options – to help limit regression and learning loss.

The groups also urged that the Department of Children and Disability should be involved in developing short-term supports such as a summer provision-style programme with therapeutic supports.

A spokesman for Ms Foley confirmed that reopening schools would be a priority for special needs pupils and in the meantime she would examine options for a suite of support measures.

When asked how long school closures may last, the spokesman said this was impossible to say at this point.

The spokesman said the Minister’s preference was to get schools open as soon as possible, but this would require the agreement of staff unions and school communities.

In a statement after the meeting, the four disability advocacy groups welcomed the plan to prioritise the reopening of special schools.

The groups had sought a “firm commitment” that students with special education needs would be back in classrooms “as soon as possible”.

“We also welcome the commitment to examine a range of interim measures to support children with SEN [Special Educational Needs] and their families in the coming weeks, and to further consultation with representative groups,” the statement said.

“However, what we need to see now is delivery and follow through on these commitments. The Government must not let our vulnerable students and their families down again,” it said.

“Our groups have been inundated by messages from parents and carers over the weekend about the impact school closures is having on their children – including significant behavioural issues and serious regression,” the statement said.

“The onus is now on the Government to work closely with teaching unions and stakeholders to find a solution that allows our most vulnerable students safely return to the classroom, and supports made available to those who can’t,” it said.

A department spokesman said “one of the main concerns emerging from the meeting was that remote learning simply does not work for many of the children in special schools or in special classes within mainstream schools.”

Government plans to reopen special schools and classes for an estimated 18,000 vulnerable children were reversed last week following opposition from staff unions.

Speaking following the meeting, Adam Harris, chief executive of As I Am, said the discussion had been constructive.

“It was reassuring to hear that children with additional needs are now the key priority group for a return to school,” he said.

“However, our children need support now to mitigate the distress and regression caused by school closures. We put forward a number of interim options and we look forward to the department progressing this.”

He said there were thousands of special needs pupils in need of therapeutic support and the involvement of disability services will be crucial in developing interim supports if schools do not reopen by next Monday.

Catherine Cox, head of policy at Family Carers Ireland, said families had seen their children “regressing” during previous school closures, and many family carers had “reached burn out”.

Department officials also met trade unions representing teachers and school staff on Monday to discuss concerns around the reopening of schools.