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Government drops plans to re-open schools for special education this Thursday

Fórsa said its workers were genuinely fearful that a return to school was unsafe for students and staff.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Updated Jan 19th 2021, 10:26 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS abandoned plans to re-open schools for special education this Thursday, after unions earlier said they opposed the move. 

In a statement, Minister for Education Norma Foley and Junior Minister Josepha Madigan said that partially re-opening the schools will “regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector”. 

The Irish National Teachers Organisation and Fórsa had urged the government to postpone the partial re-opening. 

In a joint statement this evening, the unions said that fears raised by parents and staff had led to their decision to call on the government to revise its plans. 

School buildings had been set to remain closed until the end of the month at least, but the Department of Education had indicated that it wanted to see a return for students with special educational needs prioritised.

Both unions want to see further discussions with government that will lead to improved safety measures in schools. 

The INTO executive said it heard concerns that many parents whose children have special educational needs and additional underlying health conditions don’t have confidence in sending their children back to school at this time.

It wants the department to revise the re-opening plan to ensure that these children would continue to be supported remotely. 

Fórsa said its workers were genuinely fearful that a return to school was unsafe for students and staff. 

It said there was a discrepancy with the national Covid-19 stay-at-home advice and inconsistent advice about schools on safety was at the root of staff anxiety. 

Fórsa’s head of education, Andy Pike said, “The government hasn’t won the support of special education stakeholders. I’m sure this was not the intention, but we are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.

“It would be for the best if all parties would focus on a general reopening of schools as soon as possible, once there is an established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases and fresh public health advice that it is safe to do so.”

INTO general secretary John Boyle said there as conflicting health messaging which had left staff unconvinced a return to work was safe under current decisions. 

He said: “We are calling on the Government to avoid a confrontational approach that forces a reopening on tens of thousands of fearful staff who want to follow public health advice. Instead, they should continue to work with us to ensure that schools are safe for students and staff.”

The unions added that they were calling on the government to step back from forcing the re-opening of schools, which would “create conflict at the height of the pandemic”. They are due to meet again tomorrow. 

Government statement

In its statement, the Department of Education said that “unprecedented engagement” has been held with stakeholders and “ it had been hoped that a shared objective to support children with special educational needs return to in-school learning, could be reached”.

The department said it had set out for unions how it would address its concerns around the health and safety, childcare provision, flexibility to work remotely and to carry out duties where they are not in person contact. 

It also referenced a webinar held by deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn yesterday to address public health concerns that had been raised. 

The department said: “In this context it is considered that schools could reopen for priority groups such as special needs children who are unable to engage in remote teaching, as school closures has significant impacts on children with special educational needs. While the general advice is that people stay at home, this does not apply to essential workers providing an essential service.”

It also said that guidance issued by the department to stakeholders outlined how schools could continue to support children remotely and for in-school provision. 

Minister Norma Foley said: “This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50 per cent capacity, to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage in any way with remote learning.

“We have provided guidance and flexibility in relation to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19, to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexibility for schools to manage this situation and return to in-person learning over the coming days, to organise and manage their staffing in this context.

The government has sought to agree an approach balancing the need to support our most vulnerable children while addressing the concerns of staff.  We will now need to consider how best to proceed in the interests of children and their families. The needs of our most vulnerable young people are at stake here, and I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that they can be restored to the in-person learning that they need as immediately as possible.

The Minister also said that Ireland was an outlier in the EU in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time.

Foley also said that the INTO represents teachers here and in Northern Ireland, and that “many schools in the North are currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs”.

“It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here,” she added.

Opposition

In a statement, Sinn Féin’s education spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire described the situation as a “profound failure of government”. 

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He said: “The government’s entire approach to this has been characterised by chaos, miscommunication, a failure to properly engage and most of all – a failure to plan and to prepare.

“Twice in as many weeks a mess has been made of this. It is utterly unacceptable.”

Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was also critical of the government. 

He said: “Despite the many missives from the Minister, the re-opening of SEN schools and classes on Thursday is now impossible. Children with special needs are regressing rapidly, and their parents are at breaking point. This is just not good enough.

“This is a mess entirely of the Department’s own making. Through mismanagement, they have damaged the partnership approach that has worked since September. While everyone’s ultimate wish is to resume in-person special education, this is only on the basis that it is safe to do so in agreement with the unions. Given the dire situation we now find ourselves in, I’m calling on the Taoiseach to intervene and rapidly rebuild the trust between groups that the Minister has forfeited.”

About the author:

Sean Murray

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