The main special needs assistants’ union says it will support reopening school for children with additional needs if health and safety checks show it is safe to do so.
The Government was recently forced to drop plans to reopen special schools and classes following safety concerns among staff unions including Fórsa, which represents SNAs.
However, Fórsa said on Wednesday that it will advise its members to co-operate with the “phased resumption” of school for children with additional needs if a range of Covid measures are taken to underpin the safety of students and staff.
Advocacy groups representing students with additional needs welcomed the union’s statement as a “significant step in the right direction.”
However, they said there are more hurdles to clear before schools re-open for children with additional needs.
"Today's announcement is a positive signal, and the onus is now on the Government to re-double their efforts to clear the remaining obstacles standing in the way of re-opening schools for students with special educational needs," said a group spokesperson, which includes Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, AsIAm and Family Carers Ireland.
“Parents need a clear timeframe on when they can expect in-school services to resume . . . We must see an urgent return to school for all children with additional needs, particularly those attending special classes and schools.”
Fórsa’s education division, which represents over 12,000 school-based staff including SNAs, list of demands to the Department of Education prior to the reopening of schools.
– A "phased resumption of services" with staggered attendance to reduce the number of individuals on site at any one time
– A National Public Health Emergency Team assessment of the safety of staff and special needs students attending schools during this phase of the pandemic
– The prioritisation of school staff for receipt of Covid-19 vaccine, in light of their recent designation as essential workers
– Serial school-based Covid-19 testing similar to that in place for essential workers in health, social care and the meat industry
Andy Pike, Fórsa's head of education, said these measures would build confidence in the safety of classrooms among staff, students and parents.
“The official position is that schools are safe places, even as we are at the peak of transmission of the virus,” he said.
“While additional mitigation measures have been in place in schools since August, many staff do not have full confidence that schools are safe places to work and study.
“We are calling on the Department of Education and individual schools to work with us to rebuild confidence and start the resumption of school-based special educational needs services as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.
Fórsa said it accepted that its demands cannot all be put in place right away, but called for immediate action on those that can, and concrete proposals for the roll-out of the rest.
On Monday, Minsiter for Education Norma Foley told advocacy groups 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.
A 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