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Special schools to reopen on 11 February while special classes in other schools to return on 22 February

The revised plans were released this evening.

Image: Shutterstock/BlurryMe

Updated Feb 1st 2021, 10:59 PM

SPECIAL SCHOOLS WILL reopen at 50% capacity on 11 February, it emerged this evening. 

Union Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants, backed the plan and told its members that the proposed changes make returning to work “as safe as it could possibly be”.

The revised plans mean that special schools will reopen at 50% capacity on 11 February while special classes in other schools will reopen for all students from 22 February. 

The plans include “significantly enhanced” safety measures for students and staff.

The measures include PPE, the number of people in classrooms, and provisions for SNAs and teachers who are medically vulnerable or pregnant.

Fórsa said that SNAs would be in the first 30% of the population to receive a vaccine against Covid-19.

Plans with information on reopening are to be circulated to schools tomorrow.

The Department of Education said the reopening will be reviewed in line with public health advice and that talks are continuing on the wider reopening of schools.

“Recognising that remote learning is particularly challenging for children with additional needs, the Department of Education has put in place a supplementary programme to support the education and/or care needs of pupils with complex needs,” the department said.

“An allocation of five hours per week of home-based teaching or care supports will be made available to eligible pupils. This allocation is intended to supplement, and not replace, the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school and can be provided by a teacher or SNA in a student’s home, at evenings and weekends.”

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime this evening, Fórsa’s Head of Education Andy Pike said that the plan is “as safe as you could make it in terms of the phased return to schools”.

Pike said the union had not been given a set date for when members could expect to have received a vaccine.

“We’re not suggesting that school staff need to receive a vaccination before returning to school supports, but it’s helpful context to know that SNAs have been prioritised,” he said.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said it is “hugely positive we now have a concrete plan in place to support these children to return to in-person schooling, in line with public health advice”. 

“It is regrettable that a pathway for a return to in-class learning for children with additional needs in mainstream schools could not be reached but we will continue to work with our partners to provide a resolution for this cohort of pupils,” the minister said

 “The re-opening of our schools for all students remains a top priority for Government and I am committed to working on an ongoing basis with all stakeholders to achieve this, in line with public health advice.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson for education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said further clarity is still needed on how the reduced capacity system will work.

“Families will want to know in what way 50% attendance will work, and what supports will be available to them when children are not in school,” Ó Laoghaire said.

“They will also want to know how school transport will work, and when full attendance will return,” he said.

Northern Ireland also confirmed this evening that staff in special education schools will be prioritised for the vaccine

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said there was a “strong rationale” for vaccinating staff in special schools.

“I welcome confirmation that staff in special schools will be vaccinated against Covid-19,” O’Neill said.

“The vaccination of these frontline workers must be taken forward by the Ministers and Education Authority as a priority,” she said.

Additional reporting by Lauren Boland

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