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Norma Foley: It's a matter of deep regret that unions won't recognise special education as essential

Fórsa said that they opposed the return to schools this week as ‘there was no confidence in the Government’s approach’.

Image: MAXWELLS DUBLIN

MINISTER FOR EDUCATION Norma Foley said that ”it’s a matter of deep regret” that unions have opposed the phased reopening of schools for children with special educational needs this week, despite it being deemed an essential service.

Minister of State Josepha Madigan said that the unions’ stance was “unreasonable” and compared the situation children with special needs were left in to conditions in the mother and baby homes.

The Government scrapped their plan for special education classes to return to schools this week after Fórsa and the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) announced last night that they were opposing the phased return this week.

Following a scathing statement from the Department of Education last night, the Education Minister said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today:

“We have underpinned everything in education on public health, and it is a matter of deep regret that the unions are not happy at this stage to recognise the essential needs of children with additional needs, or accept the expert public health advice that is being offered to them.”

Foley said that the INTO had said previously that they would return to schools if the public health advice supported it.

“Now, at the 11th hour, they have said they cannot accept the public health advice.”

“There can be nothing more essential than providing care and education for children with additional needs.”

Representatives of students with special needs have said that virtual teaching doesn’t work for these students, and that they need in-person interactions and a structure to their day to learn and develop.

“For many families it was a time of intense trauma,” Foley said.

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

A live webinar led by Dr Ronan Glynn had been held for special education needs teachers (SEN teachers) and 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.

What unions have said

Fórsa’s head of education told TheJournal.ie that the union noted the Minister’s position.

“It was very clear the approach for reopening was falling apart at the seams, a lot of measures that we had asked for weeks ago were only finally agreed on Tuesday afternoon. By that time, it was clear school staff had no confidence in the approach.”

He said that the fact that 16,000 attended the webinar with Dr Ronan Glynn was evidence that something “had gone wrong”.

“Public health in general needs to improve, a more optimistic message needs to be going into homes,” he said, adding that testing in schools could also be considered.

When asked if the schools returning by 1 February was possible, Pike said “Yes it is… we’d be very happy to see that happen”, adding that work would continue with the Minister to discuss possible additional measures.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast today, the General Secretary of the INTO John Boyle claimed that the information given at that webinar hosted on Monday supported their concerns:

“Just two days ago, three eminent experts told over 16,000 SMEs and teachers that what happens in the community happens in school; with numbers like these the schools are threatened; the virus is most active in 20 to 50 year olds.”

“All we asked for last evening… We had a meeting with the Department yesterday and all of the other stakeholders, they are extremely nervous about reopening this week. We asked for a rethink in relation to this week.”

Boyle said that negotiations needed to continue to get back to schools, but questioned whether 1 February date was “achievable”.

“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.”

When asked about the “derisory”, “vitriolic comments” directed at public health experts during the webinar held for teachers, Boyle said: “There’s a heightened level of anxiety among everybody in Ireland at the moment.”

shutterstock_666980404 Source: Shutterstock/Anna Nahabed

Speaking on the same programme, Andy Pike said that the issue of providing a safe working environment had been a big issue.

He said that there was a “four-month fight” for teachers to be provided with face masks.

“Over the last three days the overwhelming message is that there was no confidence in the approach the Government set out. Now as a union that represents SNAs, as the only voice they’ve got, we have to take cognisance of that, and say to the Government ‘there’s a real problem with confidence in the approach you suggested’.”

Mother and baby home comparison

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne show, Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan said that she was “disappointed” in what she called the unions’ “unreasonable stance”.

She said that Gardaí, supermarket workers, and other frontline staff are all at work as they are deemed to be essential during the pandemic.

“We’ve spent the last week talking about mother and baby homes where our most vulnerable were left to their own devices in less than satisfactory conditions and we’re now allowing further anxiety and upset to be placed on the shoulders of parents whose children desperately need to go back to school.”

“The special schools are open in Northern Ireland, they’re open in the UK… By the weekend we’ll have 1,000 cases a day, and schools were open then.”

“It’s the very first time that unions have actually ignored the public health advice.”

The Department’s statement

The Department of Education issued a scathing statement in response to the union’s decision not to support the return to school this week.

The Department 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.

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.”

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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 for Education 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% 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 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”.

When this was put to Boyle, he responded to say that vaccinations had been given to more people in the North, and that more 

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

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Riordán said that it has to be understood that teachers are going to be anxious about Ireland’s high rate of Covid, and repeatedly called for the Taoiseach to get involved in the situation, as trust had been lost in Foley and Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan.

With reporting from Sean Murray.

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