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At-risk SNAs and childcare among final obstacles in resuming special-education classes

Minister Norma Foley said classes for children with special needs would reopen next Thursday.

Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Updated Jan 16th 2021, 3:50 PM

THERE ARE ISSUES still outstanding between the Department of Education and union Fórsa over the partial reopening of schools for children with special educational needs.

The Government is aiming to get children with special educational needs in both special schools and mainstream schools back in school buildings on a phased basis.

Operational arrangements have been sent out to schools about how this would work in practice, leading to reports that an agreement had been finalised.

The union representing over 12,000 special needs assistants (SNAs) Fórsa said that efforts are still underway to partially reopen special schools and classes, but said that they have “no difficulty” with operational arrangements being sent to schools at this point, so that they can prepare for next week.

But it said this would require agreement on measures that would underpin the safety of students and staff.

Among the issues that need to be resolved are:

  • Safety assurances for SNAs who are at-high risk of Covid-19 because of medical conditions. This is thought to concern around 300-400 SNAs.
  • Childcare arrangements for SNAs, which is described as an “acute” problem. Childcare services are closed to most people until the end of the month, but can remain open for the children of essential workers and vulnerable children.

Fórsa said it hoped to be able to advise SNAs “as soon as possible” that it was safe to co-operate with the Government’s phased resumption of in-school services for children with special educational needs.

Minister for Education Norma Foley gave a commitment to reopen school classes for children with special needs from next Thursday 21 January.

Talks aren’t taking place this weekend, but are expected to resume next week and be resolved by Tuesday evening.

A further virtual meeting between the Department of Education, public health, and teachers’ unions is planned for Monday, where public health officials are to explain the meaning behind the “schools are safe” phrase that has been repeated by the Government and health officials.

This meeting is being described as “really important” to the plan to reopen schools.

Speaking to Virgin Media News last night, the Taoiseach said that providing education for children with special needs was the Government’s “first priority”.

When asked could he guarantee that all students would be going back to school at the start of February, Martin said: “There can be no guarantees about anything given the current transmission in the community, and the new variants.”

Opposition parties have called on Foley to take action on the outstanding problems.

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Sinn Féin education spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that “reports today that there remain issues outstanding that could prevent a return to special education next week are of serious concern”.

“This flies in the face of an announcement from the Minister for Education yesterday that this had been agreed,” Ó Laoghaire said.

“The chaos that ensued two weeks ago happened because the government tried to bounce stakeholders, trying to decide policy by press release rather than engage in proper dialogue.”

Similar, Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said that it was “deeply irresponsible for the government, the Minister for Education and her Department to use pre-emptive announcements to reopen classes for special needs children and this mishandling threatens the entire process again”.

“Last night the government announced the return of in-school teaching for special needs children from Thursday 21st, however it is clear that not all the concerns of staff have been addressed,” Ó Ríordáin said.

“Sending such an important directive by email at 8pm on a Friday evening is no way to do business,” he said. 

“The issuing of guidelines was conflated with reopening. The government, by trying to announce their way to reopening SEN schools without showing due respect to partnership and the genuine concerns of SNAs and teachers is once again causing unnecessary anxiety for parents, children, and staff.”

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