Minister for Education Norma Foley has been urged, along with trade unions and all other stakeholders, to go into a Brexit-style "tunnel" and not make any statements on the reopening of special schools and classes until a solution has been found for the current impasse on the issue.
During a Dáil debate on Thursday in which there were further recriminations over who was to blame for the collapse of plans to reopen special schools, two Government TDs appealed for all stakeholders to “enter the tunnel” with a media blackout and no commentary on the issue until a solution on reopening the schools was reached.
The debate came days after the Government was forced to abandon plans to reopen special schools and classes this week for thousands of children with additional needs following safety concerns among staff unions amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív told the Dáil on Thursday he believed in debates and "thrashing things out", but that "I believe that this is a case where we would actually be better employed by, as they say in the European jargon, everybody being in the tunnel".
He said teachers, parents, and the Department of Education should all “go into the tunnel and just sit down and see how can this be worked out in the interest of those probably least well able to speak for themselves and that’s the children”.
Fine Gael TD Kieran O'Donnell echoed the call and said the situation was "so serious" that it required such a tunnel.
Ms Foley said all sides would engage and discuss and do everything they could “to find a solution”.
She also insisted that opening schools for students with additional education needs was a priority, after Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that “it would be a profound mistake to roll reopening of special schools into general school return”.
There were testy exchanges as Ms Foley and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan came under renewed Opposition criticism in the Dáil over the collapse of the reopening plans for special schools and classes.
Ms Foley told TDs: “I recognise that when things don’t work out it is necessary to engage and re-engage and re-engage.”
Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called on Ms Foley and Ms Madigan to stop giving interviews and claimed that every speech they gave on the issue made matters worse and he would not ask questions because of that.
But Ms Foley said he had accused her of attempting to make people pick sides.
“I make no apology, I will continue to pick the side of children with special needs,” she said.
But Social Democrats education spokesman Gary Gannon said that that was pitting students against SNAs and teachers. Mr Gannon said there was a need to de-escalate the tension and mood to allow the talks between stakeholders to progress.
Ms Foley said that the State is an outlier in the EU in not currently having in-person education for children with special needs.
She said data from this month showed that “childcare facilities had a close contact positivity rate of 3.2 per cent”, compared with an equivalent rate in the community “in the high teens”.
Ms Foley said she recognised the high anxiety there was about the virus, but said that “the close contact positivity rate for all schools has been below that of childcare facilities”.
She told the Dáil that some 16,000 SNAs, teachers, school principals and parents took part in an online seminar with public health experts earlier this week which received negative feedback.
“I must say that I was somewhat taken aback by some commentary around their [the public health experts’] role in recent days, which sought to cast aspersions on their advice.
“The Department [of Education] has consistently accepted and implemented the knowledge and advice of public health. This is the first time that unions have refused to accept that advice,” she said.