Talks with unions to examine possibility of reopening schools from February 1st

Option of allowing school open on voluntary basis for special needs students being explored

The Government and unions are to explore whether it is possible to reopen schools from February 1st if there is a continued decline in Covid-19 cases.

It follows the collapse of plans to reopen special schools and classes this week following safety concerns among school staff unions due to high levels of Covid-19 transmission in the community.

Engagement between the Department of Education and unions is due to continue on Thursday.

Sources say another option being explored involves identifying whether a critical mass of school staff and boards of management want to temporarily reopen on a voluntary basis for students with special needs.

However, there are concerns that such a move may result in a partial reopening and lead to inequity across the education system.

Other sources say a more likely option is waiting for virus transmission rates to fall to a level closer to where they were late last year when schools were still operating.

Safe reopening

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Fórsa, the union which represents special needs assistants, are due to continue discussions over the safe reopening of schools today.

Andy Pike, head of education at Fórsa, said the union wanted special educational services as soon as possible once it was safe to do so.

“We’re not saying everything has to wait until there is a reopening of all schools. We recognise the need to get something done as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so, and that’s what we’re working towards,” he said.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said he believed the number of new cases would need to continue to fall before schools could reopen. He said that if the number of cases continued to drop then it was possible schools could reopen on February 1st. "Teachers can't wait to go back to school," he said.

Rancour and acrimony

Debate over the collapse of plans to reopen schools was marked by rancour and acrimony on Wednesday.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said claims by the INTO that it did not instruct its members to stay out of schools were "incredibly disingenuous".

Ms Foley made the statement after Mr Boyle said the union “most certainly didn’t” instruct its members not to go back to schools on Thursday.

Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan apologised for remarks she made on radio where she compared the plight facing vulnerable people to the experiences of children in mother and baby homes.

Clarifying her remarks, the Minister said that her comments “pertained to looking after the most vulnerable in our society, including children with special educational needs. “I meant no more than that. At no stage would I compare these two very different situations.”

‘Lost control’

There were also calls for Taoiseach Micheál Martin to intervene in the controversy, with Labour education spokesman Aodhán O Riordáin claiming that Ms Foley and Ms Madigan had "lost control" of the situation and were now part of the problem.

Ms Foley said the department had been seeking an accommodation that would allow for the return to class of 18,000 pupils out of a school population of 1.1 million. Most of those classes had just six students, she said.

She said it was a matter of deep regret that the unions representing teachers and special needs assistants had not accepted public health advice that it would be safe to reopen schools for children with special needs.

“Everything we did was underpinned by public health advice,” she said.

Ms Foley said she understood there was great anxiety in the sector, but other essential workers such as healthcare workers, ambulance personnel, gardaí and supermarket staff were going to work every day. There was nothing more essential than providing education, she said.