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'Our kids are suffering': Some parents 'devastated' over failure to re-open special education as planned

Schools for children with special educational needs were due to re-open today.

PARENTS HAVE SAID they are disappointed and frustrated with the government’s handling of re-opening special education amid the third wave of Covid-19. 

Schools for children with additional educational needs were initially due to re-open today until the government abandoned its plan after unions said they opposed the move.

At around 10pm on Tuesday night, the Education Minister Norma Foley and Junior Minister Josepha Madigan said that partially re-opening schools would “regrettably not be possible”.

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

Catriona Kelly from Westmeath told that she was “extremely disappointed” with the decision to keep special education facilities closed.

Her eight-year-old son attends an Autism unit at a local primary school. 

“I was very upset and I still am. I’m very, very frustrated. I really feel that my son’s voice is not being heard in this at all,” she said. 

Unfortunately, children like my son always seem to be on the bottom rung of the ladder which is disgraceful.

“The teachers in our school – they just can’t do enough for you and they want to help us, but yet they’re not being allowed to help us because of people in the higher echelons of the government and unions that just don’t seem to see the bigger picture in that our kids are suffering.

“They need help. They’re not capable of learning the way other children are. They need help and they need to be in school.”

She said she has noticed her son regressing since being out of school. 

“He is a lot more aggressive… he shouts at you a lot more. He kind of goes into his own little world and doesn’t want to be interact with us or his siblings,” Kelly said. 

“He’s obsessed with dinosaurs and he has these games with dinosaurs in his head. He just wants to do that and play in his head rather than interact with us.” 

She said the principal of her son’s school phoned on Monday to ask if she was comfortable returning her son to school this week. 

“I know the teachers, I know the SNAs, I know how much care they give to him and I know they have all the proper protocols in place so I was very happy for him to go back to school,” she said. 

Some teachers have said that their concerns about the safety of the school environment during the current level of transmission haven’t been addressed. 

Speaking on Newstalk radio yesterday, the general secretary of the INTO John Boyle said that negotiations needed to continue to get back to schools, but questioned whether this is “achievable” by 1 February.

For those parents, I tell you one thing, the teachers of Ireland did so much for those 80 days [between September and December when schools were open] and they cannot wait to get back to safe schools.

A live webinar led by Dr Ronan Glynn was held this week for special education needs teachers (SEN teachers) and special needs assistants (SNAs).

Teachers had the opportunity to ask questions – but many are said to have derided the public health experts for saying that schools are safe.

When asked about these comments, Boyle said: “There’s a heightened level of anxiety among everybody in Ireland at the moment.”

‘We’re angry, we’re cross, we’re frustrated’

Gerry McNally from Wexford said he is “devastated” after the “glimmer of hope” that schools would re-open was removed on Tuesday. 

“In our heart of hearts, I think we knew what way it was going to end up,” he said. 

But for it to be snatched away – we’re angry, we’re cross, we’re frustrated.

“We’re parents who both work in essential services in the food industry. We have to be at work every day.

“We been told by our Minister of Agriculture at the start of this pandemic that we had to go to work and we have got to keep food on the table. 

“We haven’t shirked that responsibility. We have put ourselves out there for others, because we feel that’s what businesses have to do and that’s what we have signed up to.

But we just don’t feel that that’s been reciprocated by the teachers by the SNAs, by their unions, by the government.

“I think the only bubble that exists at the minute is the bubble to protect them.”

McNally’s son Oisín has Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“He thrives on stability, he thrives on schedules. Change doesn’t come very easy to him,” McNally said.

“If we change his plan or to have told him at the start of the week about this possibility only to tell him again today [that he wouldn't return to school] – that’s a major meltdown.

“He can’t comprehend that you have told him one thing and now done something else and it doesn’t follow through. That doesn’t register.” 

“I just feel once again that vulnerable children are being left out. This isn’t just our child, this goes further beyond.”

McNally said he and his wife had not told Oisín there was a possibility of schools re-opening this week. 

“We couldn’t give him the glimmer of hope that we had,” he said. 

‘Risk too high at the moment’ 

Rachel O’Connor lives in Meath with her twin eight-year-old girls – one of whom has Autism.  

She said she does not plan to send her child back to special education “until I feel schools are safe generally”. 

“From my perspective, the government is forcing the teachers to [go back] whether they want to do it or not.”

She said she feels the “risk to public health is just too high at the moment” and she doesn’t feel it is safe.

O’Connor was in contact with the teacher at her daughter’s school and was already planning to continue learning at home for the foreseeable.

“Every situation is different,” O’Connor said.

“We’re coping… the two girls are doing completely different work. Evelyn is doing standard second class work and Sive [who has Autism] is doing a lot more tailor made.

“Academically, she will catch up. She misses her friends and it must be very hard for kids who don’t have siblings. 

“I’m not telling her she’s going back until I’m convinced and certain that she’s going back.” 

‘Another cruel blow’

Four advocacy groups representing children with special educational needs yesterday said the decision to not re-open schools was “another cruel blow to families”. 

“We cannot stress enough the scale of the impact the closure of schools is having on some children with special educational needs,” a spokesperson for the groups said. 

“We’re asking again for their needs to be prioritised, and for all parties to re-engage on this issue to get these children back to school.”

Yesterday, the Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan withdrew remarks she made in the Dail last week in relation to special education.

Speaking last Thursday about what the government had expected to be the re-opening of special education today, Madigan had said: “We all know that even for normal children remote teaching is difficult but for children who have additional needs it is particularly difficult.”

Withdrawing those comments, the junior minister said the words were “not appropriate” 

“I would like to withdraw the remark and to re-emphasise my commitment as always to supporting children with special educational needs and their families, particularly at this difficult time.”

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