The absence of detailed guidance on summer programmes for children with special educational needs could put students and staff at risk, and it is acting as a deterrent to those thinking of opting into the scheme.
That is according to Fórsa, the union that represents more than 12,000 staff in primary and secondary schools, including special needs assistants (SNAs).
Summer programmes for both children with special educational needs and those who are at risk of disadvantage are due to begin in July. The full re-opening of schools is still planned for September. However, further information on how this reopening will happen safely has yet to be issued.
"Without this guidance, schools do not know how many students can attend, what PPE such as masks will be required, and what new hygiene regime will be required," the union said.
The Department of Education is the only large State department yet to issue safety guidance for the reopening of services, Fórsa claims in a written submission to the Oireachtas special committee on the Covid-19 response. The union, which says it backed the early resumption of services to children with special educational needs, told the committee that the lack of detailed guidance is deterring many from opting into the voluntary summer programmes.
The publication of Covid-19 safety guidance is mandatory under the safe return to work protocol. This applies to schools in the same manner as all other workplaces, the submission added.
“Thus far the focus of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) advice has been to stress the need for the young to protect the vulnerable. In terms of the school community, the risks of clusters of Covid-19 developing schools and spreading into the local community is real and needs to be managed rather than be ignored or downplayed," the submission states.
SNAs will not be able to practice effective social distancing due to the requirement for close contact with students, the submission also adds. Many staff are parents themselves and will be affected by any reduced school attendance patterns, according to Andy Pike, head of education at Fórsa. The union recognises the impact the prolonged school closures have had on students with special education needs, he added.
According to correspondence sent to schools this week, the Department of Education is working with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to give schools guidance on updating their risk assessments and safety statements ahead of summer programmes. Schools will also be updated with health advice on appropriate physical distancing. All staff must complete induction training prior to returning to the school building, according to the document.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said some staff will need to wear PPE for certain work activities. This includes performing intimate care, or when a suspected case of Covid-19 is identified. Hand sanitiser will also be needed and work on procuring these items for the new school year is underway.
"In the interim, schools operating the summer programme will need to source these items locally." Costs will be reimbursed, he added.