Talks resume between unions and officials over reopening special schools

Focused is on risk areas and logistics and a plan is expected by the end of this week

Minister for Education Norma Foley has said the  focus  is to resume in-person education for children with special needs. Photograph: Julien Behal

Minister for Education Norma Foley has said the focus is to resume in-person education for children with special needs. Photograph: Julien Behal


Talks between Government and teaching staff have been scaled up this week in a bid to force a breakthrough in special education provision.

Negotiations. aimed at resolving concerns that led to the cancellation of the planned reopening of special education provision last week, resumed on Monday morning and are due to continue over the coming days.

All sides have agreed to refrain from public comment until an outcome has been agreed, although how long that will take remains unclear.

Public health concerns around the new Covid-19 strains and rate of infection continue to be of concern to both primary school teachers, represented by the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO, and special needs assistants, represented by the Forsá union.

Talks are taking place daily.

It is understood they are focused on key risk areas and logistics, and while no immediate solution is anticipated, a blueprint or plan of approach is likely before the end of the week.

Uncertainty around when schools of all types might be able to reopen remains despite a decreasing trend in virus cases.

Government sources have indicated that most children will not return next month and may not do so until closer to Easter.

The Government’s Cabinet committee on Covid-19 is due to receive an update on guidance from public health experts this afternoon, ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

However, with parents around Ireland waiting anxiously for schools to reopen, the priority focus of talks is to resume in-person education for children with special needs.

Separately, second level teachers’ unions are due to resume talks on both safety and this year’s Leaving Certificate exams later on this week.

With political pressure mounting on the Government, some kind of clarity is expected soon.

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) said while it is early in the year and the hope very much remains that the exam can proceed normally, there is also the possibility of some kind of modified Leaving Cert reflecting time lost in physical attendance.

“The Leaving Cert is so much more [than sit down exams] now. Over half the subject have second component assessments. They need to be encompassed,” he said.

“We don’t know how much time ultimately is going to be missed…it may be a matter of adapting the marking scheme.”

The State Examination Commission (SEC) has already issued three instructions in response to the effect of Covid-19 on curriculum delivery, guiding schools on how to meet the challenge. For example a closing date on some work in the design and communication graphics subject has already been put back.

However, while hope remains for a normal 2021 Leaving Cert, Mr Gillespie did warn of heightened anxiety during the ongoing infection surge.

“Our members are worried, and so are parents, about how safe people are given the worrying aspect of this third wave; it’s not like the first or second wave,” he said. “There is serous worry out there.

“Online [school work] is working much better than it did but it’s not 100 per cent consistent. Students are engaging way more - that’s the report we are hearing across the board.”

As with all sectors of society, hope rests with the vaccine. The Department of Education has made representations to the Department of Health about prioritising teachers and school staff during the rollout.

Addressing that request, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that while the immunisation programme is rolled out nationally “evidence will be kept under review and the allocation groups may be updated, where necessary, in light of new evidence”.