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Doubt over Thursday re-opening for special education classes amid 'make or break' talks

A webinar for teachers was held yesterday where “vitriolic” comments were left about public health experts’ assertion that schools are safe.

Image: Shutterstock/Vyaseleva Elena

DOUBT HAS BEEN cast over special education classes returning to schools in two days’ time, with “make or break” talks taking place this evening. 

School buildings had been set to remain closed until the end of the month at least, but the Department of Education has said that Leaving Cert students and students with special educational needs should be prioritised, and be allowed to return to school first.

Teachers have raised concerns about them returning to school during high numbers of Covid-19 cases, and have questioned the Government’s assertion that “schools are safe”. 

In particular, they are concerned about special needs assistants (SNAs) who are at high risk of Covid-19; and childcare arrangements for SNAs, which has been described as an “acute” problem.

Yesterday, a webinar was held for 16,500 teachers and SNAs to reassure them that schools are safe, but comments posted under the live video webinar showed acute concern and skepticism about the public health expert’s assurances.

The webinar was led by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn, Assistant National Director of the HSE Dr Kevin Kelleher, and Public Health Consultant Dr Abigail Collins.

Teachers union the INTO said last night that their “grave concerns” were not eased after the webinar, and urged the Department to reconsider its plans. INTO President Mary Magner said:

“I know this is the last thing teachers want to be worrying about as they exhaustively strive to support pupils remotely. We have heard the concerns of teachers in recent days and, while teachers across the country are keen to get back to the classroom, they are scared. Teachers are committed to supporting their vulnerable pupils but the safety of staff is vital.”

Trade union Fórsa, which represents SNAs, is to decide later this evening on whether they should agree to the Government’s plan to bring special-needs classes back to schools on Thursday.

The Department of Education released a statement at midnight last night to say that they would continue to work with teachers’ unions and other groups to bring schools back.

‘Vitriolic’ comments

Speaking on Newstalk this morning, AsIAm’s Adam Harris said that it shouldn’t be left until the last minute, as students with special needs education need time to prepare: “it’s not a case of getting up in the morning and throwing on a uniform”, he said, adding that it’s “causing major distress to our families”.

“We need clarity from the unions about what they actually want,” Harris said.

“Yesterday, we saw a webinar put in place, and from the moment it started we saw vitriolic comments – I’ve never seen the level of anger before,” he said, adding that some of that anger has been directed at the families that he represents. 

Harris said that he understands the fears of teachers, but that access to education for children with special needs was an important right.

Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan said last night that they would continue negotiations in order to bring a phased return to in-school learning for children with additional educational needs.

The Department said that there has been “almost daily” communication with the primary stakeholders with the aim of finding a way to get children with educational needs back to school.

Minister Foley said: “We will continue with this engagement to find a shared solution that is in the best interest of children with additional educational needs and their families.

“What is key is that the needs of the most vulnerable children in our education system remain our priority.

“It is vital that we continue to engage to ensure that this cohort of students is properly supported during this critical period.”

Minister Madigan said: “The priority must be to support vulnerable students at this time, such as those with special educational needs and their families.

“Vindicating the educational rights of children with special educational needs is a priority for everyone in the Department of Education and in our education system.”

Opposition

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has described the failure of the Minister for Education to allay the concerns of teachers and school staff to guarantee the reopening of special education later this week as a “calamity”, and that the plan to bring schools back this week was in “serious jeopardy”.

Ó Laoghaire said:

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“The news tonight that the INTO have stated that there remain grave concerns amongst teachers, and that the Department of Education have failed to address them, reflect a complete and utter mishandling of this issue by the government.

“The pronouncement last week followed on from the debacle of the week prior when the Minister for Education tried to bounce stakeholders – rather than engage in proper dialogue and secure agreement to do so – with school staff.

“They have made the same mistakes again and they have not acted on the concerns relayed to them,” he said.

With reporting from Sean Murray, Christina Finn

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