Schools reopen but students with additional needs ‘left behind’, say groups

Autism charity criticises ‘half-baked’ plans for phased return to in-person teaching

Primary school pupils from junior infants up to second class and sixth-year second-level students are returning as part of a staggered resumption of in-person teaching. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Primary school pupils from junior infants up to second class and sixth-year second-level students are returning as part of a staggered resumption of in-person teaching. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

Students with additional educational needs in mainstream classes are being “left behind” as schools reopen on a limited basis for tens of thousands of pupils from Monday, disability organisations have said.

Primary school pupils from junior infants up to second class and sixth-year second-level students are returning as part of a staggered resumption of in-person teaching.

Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said some 20,000 students with additional needs in mainstream schools from third class to fifth year would remain at home under the Government plans.

Special education teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) would be back in schools but this group of students, who have been at home for months due to Covid-19 restrictions, would not be, he said.

Mr Harris said this showed up the Department of Education’s plans as “half-baked” and he alleged that “the Government has deprioritised children with additional needs”.

Pressure

He claimed the department had shifted from committing to a return-to-school plan based on pupils’ needs to one based on age, due to pressure from teaching unions. All students in dedicated special education schools and classes returned to classrooms in February.

Lorraine Dempsey, Inclusion Ireland’s interim chief executive, said thousands of children with special educational needs had been left “without adequate access to education” given the challenges they face with remote learning.

She called for these students to be “allowed return to in-school lessons as soon as possible” as the last months had been “enormously difficult for these children and their families”.

The Early Childhood Care and Education preschool scheme will resume next Monday, with the remaining primary school classes and fifth years at second level scheduled to return on March 15th. First- to fourth-year secondary school students are due to return to in-person teaching from April 12th.

Negotiations

The plan to reopen schools followed lengthy negotiations between the department and teaching unions to address Covid-19 safety concerns.

A department spokesman said it was acknowledged that the phased reopening was “particularly challenging for many children with special educational needs” and their families.

“The purpose of managing this cautious phased return is to continue to limit the mobility of the population and curb the spread of the virus,” he said.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has said the risk from Covid-19 must be kept under “constant and forensic review” following the reopening.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said there was “understandable anxiety among all in school communities” about the return, particularly given fears around variants of the virus. He said adherence to health and safety measures “must be the key priority” in every school.