Many children will not be able to attend summer programmes due to issues around transport, and school buses are likely to be an issue when schools reopen, disability advocates have warned.
Many parents are reporting issues with arranging transport for getting their child to and from additional summer tuition, set up to support children who may have regressed during the extended school closures.
A detailed roadmap on how schools will reopen their classrooms in the new school year is also at least several weeks away, the Oireachtas Covid Committee heard.
Many parents cannot rely on the same transport set-up that they had previously, according to Lorraine Dempsey of Inclusion Ireland.
“Because of the disjointed nature of the school closures, many of the school transport contracts were terminated," she said.
While some support is currently available to families in the form of a grant, to be reimbursed at a later stage, many might have to travel an hour and a half to get to their child’s school.
This is three hours in the car each day, and impossible if there is more than one child in the family.
There are also fears that Covid-19 may be used as an excuse to curtail school transport services for children with special educational needs, she added.
The costs of the scheme previously raised a “red-flag” with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER).
The initial announcement that the eligibility criteria for the summer programme were to be expanded this year “raised the hopes of thousands of parents”, Ms Dempsey said, adding that there are limitations and deterrents to signing up for the voluntary schemes.
“Please don’t promise our families anything until you know you can deliver it,” she said.
The true number of families who were able to avail of the schemes will not be known until October as it is demand-led.
Ms Dempsey also questioned how the department has ruled out the widespread wearing of PPE during summer programmes when wearing a mask or face covering is now mandatory on public transport. Students and staff have the right to be safe, she added.
There will inevitably be a second wave or outbreak of Covid later in the year, Ms Dempsey said, adding that contingency plans for how to manage this in schools must be put in place now.
Many children will not be able to return to classrooms until a vaccine for Covid-19 is found and supports urgently need to be put in place, warned Enda Egan, the chief executive of Inclusion Ireland.
Almost 90% of more than 1,000 parents surveyed by Inclusion Ireland said their child misses school, with the support received varying between children, from excellent to none existent.
Medically fragile students with disabilities will not be able to attend school for some time, he added.
“The Department of Education and Skills urgently needs to identify all children who are medically compromised and put in place supports for them to receive a home tuition package until it is safe for them to return to school.
Some of these children will not be back in school until a vaccine is available or Covid-19 is fully suppressed.
“Children with disabilities need to be top of the priority listing for returning to school and any transport issue must be addressed in advance of becoming an issue,” he added.
Mark O’Connor also of Inclusion Ireland said that a significant cohort of older students do not qualify for summer programmes this year, despite the expansion of eligibility criteria.
“There is no magic that happens at the age of 13 to say a child won’t regress due to school closures,” he said.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the body that advises the department on policy, previously described the scheme as “inequitable” and open to a challenge under equal status grounds, Mr O’Connor added.
School closures have had a "profound" impact on children with complex needs, according to Teresa Griffin of the NCSE.
The council's position is that summer provision should be based on a student's needs, and not reliant on a particular diagnosis or on a child's age, she said.
Williams Syndrome genetic condition ineligible for additional summer tuition
Parents of children with genetic conditions are 'bitterly disappointed' that eligibility for additional summer tuition and learning support appears to remain dependent on a specific diagnosis.
Williams Syndrome Ireland has written to Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education, over its disappointment that children with the genetic condition remain ineligible to apply for summer programmes.
Many parents are distressed about their child's return in September, said Dr Fionnuala Tynan, a lecturer in Education at Mary Immaculate College (MIC).
Many children with WS will not qualify for July provision because they have an associated mild intellectual disability and attend a mainstream school.
In a letter to the Minister, the group points out that while children with WS share many of the same challenges as a learner with autism, they have been excluded from the scheme.
The limitations placed on the scheme do not comply with the Department's own circular on special education teaching allocation, to include students based on their needs, as opposed to being based primarily on a diagnosis of disability.
The scheme has been offered to children with Down Syndrome this year.
There are more than 750 genetic conditions that cause an intellectual disability, the letter states: "It seems inappropriate to name one genetic condition as eligible and to refuse to acknowledge others."