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'Our children are suffering': Parents of children with special needs tell government and unions to 'sort it out'

Unions have said teachers’ concerns about their safety have not been eased by health officials.

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PARENTS OF CHILDREN with special needs have called for clarity on when their children will return to school as unions express concern about the safety of teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs).

Special education classes are due to return to schools on Thursday, but unions have said health officials have not adequately assured their members that it is safe to do so.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Sarah Murphy, whose 12-year-old Tom attends a special education school, said the last week has been “a roller coaster”.

“On Friday everybody agreed and I woke up on Saturday morning and nobody agreed,” she said.

Murphy is in a group with around 500 parents and she said there is a high level of distress at the way in which the situation has been handled.

“I don’t think people really understand what a special school is,” she said. “He [Tom] has autism and an intellectual disability so while he’s 12 he really operates like a three-year-old or maybe four-year-old. And he also has Down syndrome.

School for him, it’s not really about learning. I mean, this isn’t really about education, special schools aren’t really just about teaching them, he goes to school for emotional, social reasons. And it’s the only outlet he really has outside his family. And that’s the way it is for a lot of kids.

She said it took a lot of work to get Tom to where he was before the pandemic and the return to school after the first lockdown was very difficult.

“When he went back after six months, it was almost impossible to get him in, get him on the bus and off the bus,” Murphy said.

“When he did go in he would lie on the floor licking it, not learning anything, and he knows a bit, but like most of the kids he’s not very verbal, he can’t express himself. Some of the kids in our group are completely non-verbal so it comes out then in other ways because you have to express yourself.

“So for our kids they express themselves through hitting, like he’s hitting and attacking people, and he’s not sleeping properly – we’re all not sleeping properly because the routine is completely gone.”

She said that while some children from special schools can do remote work, her son “absolutely can not”.

Murphy said parents are just looking for some certainty about what will happen, rather than a continuous back-and-forth.

“Sort it out, these are the most vulnerable people in our society these children and they are suffering, and everybody in our group will tell you their children are really suffering and they’re suffering as a family.”

Four leading advocacy organisations, AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland, said today that children with special educational needs and their families and carers have been “almost completely forgotten about” in the conversation. 

The groups have appealed for the interests of vulnerable children to be prioritised, and for the Government and education stakeholders to re-engage to find agreement on a suite of education support options that includes the re-opening of schools for children with special educational needs.

“The manner in which this issue is being dealt with – with u-turns, mixed messages and false dawns, needs to stop,” a spokesperson said. “The department and education stakeholders need to get this sorted once and for all. Our most vulnerable students – children with disabilities and special educational needs, their families and their carers have been almost completely forgotten about in this row.

“While a focus on the return to school should be a priority, in light of the continued uncertainty of a return to school for children with special education needs, urgent interim measures need to be put in place, whilst schools remain closed for these children. Direct virtual 1:1 access to the teacher, special education teacher or SNA, direct virtual access to therapy supports, in-home supports from a teacher or SNA will work for many of these pupils and in-school supports for those children who cannot engage in this manner.”

Eleanor McSherry, founder of the Special Needs Parents Association, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the topic has also caused conflict among parents.

“In my 16 years of being a parent of a child with a disability, I’ve never seen such divisiveness within our community and it’s very sad to see. I’ve had parents who’ve removed themselves from online social groups because they’ve been so upset by it,” she said.

“There’s a huge divide within the community because some of people’s children would not survive getting Covid, their children are not going to go back – they’re not going to send them back in.

The other half of the community, their children have intellectual disabilities and would otherwise be quite healthy children. Their children are regressing and they want the schools to re-open.

‘Draining’

Declan Smith, principal of Scoil Mhuire in Lismackin, Co Tipperary and an INTO member, told RTÉ, that the situation is “very draining” for everyone involved. His school is a mainstream school with some children who attend for special education.

He said many teachers have not been satisfied with the responses from government and health officials about the safety of a return to school.

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Smith said the government has been engaging with the “top table” union officials rather than with people “on the ground” as he said teachers feel like they are not being listened to.

David Carter, principal of St Paul’s Youth Encounter Project in Finglas, said there is no point pitting “one cohort pitting against another” in this debate.

“What should have happened is we should all have got together on a solution based journey to try to find a way forward through this rather than pitting one cohort against the other”.

St Paul’s is a school for at risk youths that provides an alternative and less formal setting for children who have become alienated from mainstream education for reasons of truancy or behavioural problems or family difficulties.

He said the school was not set up for remote learning when the pandemic hit and had to put in place a new system that would work for its students.

“Really with the marginalised families we are working with, we found that some of those families hadn’t got the hardware, the devices, they hadn’t got Wifi,” he said.

“Some, unfortunately when you would arrive, didn’t have electricity. And some also didn’t have the know-how and the skill so we provided the laptop and the Wifi connection.

“We would leave the house, leave the laptop connected to the teacher who was remotely providing a class while we stayed outside the house as the IT support.”

Smith and a family therapist travel around the community in a van to ensure education can continue for these students. He said the solution does not work for all families due to the pressure it would put on the vulnerable child, but it has helped others to maintain engagement with vital services.

“Those who have participated are getting family therapy, they are getting engagement, they are getting the care, they’re getting a routine, but it’s not the same as on site learning.”

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