Special schools and classes likely to remain open for vulnerable children

Ombudsman says blanket closure of schools is ‘not a viable option’

The Government is expected to keep special schools and special classes open for thousands of children with special needs.

There are about 16,000 children in special classes in mainstream schools and in special schools, staffed by several thousand teachers and special needs assistants.

A further proposal to provide supports for a further 8,000 children with additional needs in mainstream schools – but who are not in special classes – is being examined, according to sources.

The idea is that it would be modelled loosely on the summer provision scheme, in which eligible children were able to attend school settings for support last July.

Sources say a number of ministers pressed for special education to continue during a  Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 met to discuss  the potential closure of schools until February,

Minister for Education Norma Foley is understood to have urged that  special schools and special classes in mainstream schools remain open.

In addition, Minister for State for children with disabilities Josepha Madigan said she has contacted the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to ensure they remain open and that "specific provision" is made for students with special needs in mainstream classes.

The Ombudsman for Children, meanwhile, has urged the Government to avoid a blanket closure of schools due to the negative affect it will have on vulnerable children.

Dr Niall Muldoon said the closure of all schools, as happened in March last year, is "not a viable option because of the massive impact it will have on our children and their families".

“Without a doubt children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once more be disproportionately affected by Covid -19 school closures, therefore any long-term measures to reduce transmission in society must consider the substantial negative impact on these groups,” he said.

“Education is about more than learning, it is about developing personalities, talents, and abilities of children to reach their greatest potential while also facilitating mental health, play and recreation.

“I would urge all of these decision makers to look to how they might generate a nuanced response and facilitate our vulnerable children to attend school as well as how to properly support those who engage in home learning.”

Separately, three organisations representing people with disabilities said the removal of support services in education and at home would be “intolerable”.

Down Syndrome Ireland, AsIAm, and Inclusion Ireland said the Government must consider the impact that further closures will have on some of the most vulnerable children in the State.

Barry Sheridan, CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland, said the supports provided in educational settings such as special school or classes, access to additional teaching time and SNA support are the only tangible resources which they or their family receive from the State.

“It is absolutely vital they are retained, if at all possible,” he said.

Adam Harris, CEO of AsIAm said children with autism need structure, routine and an opportunity to learn and retain key skills.

He said research shows that most vulnerable children experienced increased meltdowns or overloads at home during the last lockdown period.

“A large percentage of our communities are unable to engage in online learning owing to cognitive differences,” he added.

Enda Egan, CEO of Inclusion Ireland, said the full closure of schools was not a sustainable scenario to repeat and is likely to cause untold suffering to our communities.

“ There are numerous models, implemented across EU member states, including providing hubs for students with the greatest level of need, protecting special schools and classes or providing alternative provision.”