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Education Minister: Unions 'refused to accept public health advice' over special schools return

The Fórsa union has said it wanted special education back “as soon as possible” but criticised “running commentary in the media”

Education Minister Norma Foley.
Education Minister Norma Foley.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Jan 21st 2021, 7:08 PM

EDUCATION MINISTER NORMA Foley has said that unions have “refused to accept public health advice” that a return to special education teaching was safe. 

Speaking in the Dáil earlier today, Foley said there has been “intensive engagement” with unions and other stakeholders about the planned reopening and that “agreed guidance” had been reached. 

Last week, the government had announced that agreement had been reached to begin a phased return for special education beginning today.

On Tuesday of this week, the government abandoned the plans after unions said they opposed the move due to fears raised by parents and staff. 

In a statement this evening, the Fórsa union said it wanted special education back “as soon as possible” but criticised “running commentary in the media”

Speaking yesterday, Foley said that unions would not “accept the expert public health advice being offered”. She reiterated those comments today and said that guidance had been agreed that would have allowed for special schools to operate at 50% capacity.

“Ireland is now an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time,” the minister said. 

We addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs

“The department has consistently accepted and implemented the knowledge and advice and expertise of public health. This is the first time that unions have refused to accept that public health advice. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50% capacity, to offer these students a return to learning.”

“We have provided guidance and flexibility in relation to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19 to ensure their safety,” the minister added. 

Foley addressed the timeline of last week’s events when the government had announced the planned return of special schools from today.  

Ahead of that announcement, the minister said she met with stakeholders including parents, teachers and management and that there was “a shared objective of a staged reopening”.

The minister said that following that announcement the department wrote to special schools and primary schools to address issues including safety, risk management and childcare. 

Foley said that further engagement occurred and that guidance was “agreed” with unions the INTPO and Fórsa.

Foley also said that over 16,000 people including teachers and SNAs attended a webinar last week in which public health doctors said that schools are safe places “because of the mitigation measures now in place”. 

In a statement this evening, Fórsa said that it had resumed engagement with department officials this afternoon and that it noted comments from the minister that the government was seeking a return to special education as soon as possible.

The union said it shared this goal:

Fórsa will continue to work with the education department towards the resumption of these vital services in the shortest possible time-frame compatible with the safety of students and staff. To this end, the union said it had resumed engagement with education department officials this afternoon.

In a communication to its members earlier today, Fórsa said: “It’s our intention to continue to explore realistic measures to improve safety provision and re-build confidence, just as we were doing prior to the government’s announcement on Tuesday.

It said the union’s assessment was that this re-engagement would most likely produce a timely and successful outcome if it was conducted on a focused and professional basis, rather than through a running commentary in the media.

Criticism

The minister was criticised by spokespersons from the opposition, with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD saying that “any time the minister or junior minister gets an opportunity to speak about the issue she only makes things worse”. 

“You have the audacity minister to stand there and tell us that unions are not following the public health advice when your own government didn’t do that in December,” Ó Ríordáin said. 

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The Labour deputy also said that the minister was attempting to have people pick sides in the debate. 

In response, the minister said: “You have made the assertion that I have attempted to encourage people to pick sides. I make no apology, I pick the side and I will continue to pick the side of children with additional needs. They are my first priority.”

Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said he was “disappointed” with this response:

“I was really disappointed when you said that yes you’ve chosen to pick a side and you’re on the side of children who are most vulnerable, because in that binary you give the impression that there are those of use who are not, and in particular those who are asking to be safe upon their return to the work.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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