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Minister to meet special needs groups as families left ‘devastated’ over schools u-turn

CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland said the u-turn on schools has left families and children with special educational needs reeling.

Image: Sam Boal

EDUCATION MINISTER NORMA Foley will meed special needs advocacy groups on Monday, it is understood.

Three leading advocacy organisations representing students with additional needs, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and AsIAm, have said that the Government u-turn over the re-opening of special schools has left families of children with special educational needs ‘devastated’, and immediate supports must be put in place for them.

Parents of children with special needs called Joe Duffy on RTE’s Liveline this afternoon to detail how many of the children had regressed in their vital educational development, since they finished for Christmas holidays.

One mother said her son had forgotten all his toilet training and another explained that her son was jumping on the trampoline and crying, all day long.

The advocacy groups sought an urgent meeting with Minister for Education Norma Foley, who held a meeting with education stakeholders today.

Talks between teachers’ unions and the Department of Education concluded just after 2.30pm, where all sides agreed that the Leaving Cert should go ahead this June.

The meeting was held after the Government reversed a decision to have Leaving Cert students, as well as special needs children, return to school buildings from next week.

A spokesperson for the minister said Foley is  ”more than keen, in fact adamant” that government find a solution to keep up supports for children with special needs during the lockdown. 

‘Reeling’

Speaking today, Barry Sheridan, CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland said: “This announcement has left families and children with special educational needs reeling.”

“This morning families are worried about what further regression and distress will be experienced during another potentially lengthy closure period with no plan on how these children can be supported by the State.

“We are seeking an urgent meeting on behalf of students with special educational needs and their families to discuss measures that can be introduced and arrangements that can be put in place to mitigate this situation for children,” he said, adding that it is vital that children with a disability are represented and included.

Over 18,000 young people have once again been left behind in our response to the pandemic, he said, adding that other European governments and education partners have prioritised vulnerable young people.

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“The loss of in-school support has a major developmental impact on our children – one they will feel throughout their lives. We know that 61% of autistic young people lost key skills in areas such as communication, social interaction, self-regulation and personal care during the last lockdown period,” he said.

Enda Egan, CEO of Inclusion Ireland, said it is unacceptable that no contingency plans are in place to support students with special educational needs. 

‘Devastating’

AsIAm’s CEO Adam Harris told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that it was a “devastating” decision not to allow special education learning.

“We know that remote learning does not work [for our young people]. Our young people need a structured environment with highly skilled staff in order to be able to learn.

We know that 79% of our families have said – in order for their children to learn, if this scenario was to arise again – they would need in-school support, and unfortunately we’ve learned this morning, that’s not going to be available.

Minister Foley said: “It is with the best of good faith that I did believe and I continue to believe that children with additional challenges, children with complex needs, that particular emphasis should be placed on their needs in the midst of a pandemic.”

When asked what would happen if the teachers’ unions continue to refuse to go back to school at the end of January, Foley said that she would rather focus on solutions.

Following today’s meeting with teachers” unions a spokesperson for the minister said Foley wants a solution found on how to best support children with special needs. 

A government source said it is still the view of government that getting children back into the classroom is best for their wellbeing. They said that a pathway forward for protecting children with special needs to be found, stating that the level of impact the last lockdown had in terms of regression, is exactly why a decision was made to keep special classes up and running earlier this week.

They said it is still the intention and ambition of the education minister to find a pathway for this issue to be solved.

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