Charities describe uncertainty over special school re-openings as 'cruel and disrespectful

New guidance issued to principals mapped out the planned return to school for children in special schools and those with additional needs in mainstream schools. 
Charities describe uncertainty over special school re-openings as 'cruel and disrespectful

File Picture: Jim Coughlan

Disability and Family Carer groups have described the ongoing uncertainty around the reopening of special schools as "cruel and disrespectful". 

AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland have said the lack of clarity around the scheduled return of school for families and children with additional needs is a cause of great concern. 

The four leading advocacy groups said they have received calls and emails from many deeply upset families. 

The mixed messages from stakeholders and the Department of Education is only adding to the distress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, a spokesman for the groups said. 

"At a time when families are struggling to cope with supporting their children on a 24/7 basis, often whilst juggling work and other care commitments, it is totally unacceptable for stakeholders to get their hopes up or to give mixed messages. 

"Our children should be a central stakeholder in the return to school as they are the thousands of children with additional needs who will benefit from a re-opening," he said.

In a joint statement, the four groups called on the Education Department and stakeholders to come to an agreement over the weekend so that schools may reopen on Thursday. 

No agreement reached

Ahead of a limited return of special schools on Thursday, a union said agreement have still not been reached on a number of enhanced safety measures for its members.

Under official guidelines issued to school principals yesterday, children in special schools are set to attend school on alternate days from next Thursday.

Schools have also been advised to arrange in-person learning every day for children in special classes in mainstream schools. 

Children with "significant additional needs" in mainstream classes in primary schools should also have access to in-school learning. The School Transport Scheme will "fully operate" from Thursday, the Department of Education document also noted. 

However, Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants (SNAs) said agreement had yet to be reached "on enhanced safety measures" for SNAs that would allow the union "to advise SNAs that it was safe to co-operate with the phased resumption of in-school services to children with special educational needs". 

The union said talks with the Department of Education were not finished and some issues still needed to be resolved. 

Fórsa said these issues include the safety of SNAs at high risk of Covid-19 infection, and the absence of childcare arrangements for workers during Level 5 restrictions. 

In a statement the union said: "It was working hard to speed the resumption of services to students with special educational needs, and to build confidence in the safety of classrooms among staff, students and parents. But it said agreement had not yet been reached."

Speaking this morning on Newstalk, Andy Pike, a spokesperson for Fórsa said: "We've still got issues to resolve. We very much hope we can find solutions by continuing to work with the Department of Education to resolve these problems. 

"But we will be taking a final view on Tuesday evening."

Directed returns

All special education teachers (SET) and teachers wh5o do not teach mainstream classes, as necessary, and all SNAs had been directed to return on January 21, other than those on approved leave. 

As the students returning to in-school learning will not be able to attend their mainstream classes during the day as classes continue remotely, schools had been directed to group the students temporarily.  

SETs are not expected to cover the full curricular programme and should provide additional teaching support "in the same manner in which they would if the school were open for all pupils to attend". 

Schools "will be aware of the pupils in mainstream classes who have the most significant needs and can be identified as a priority group for in-school teaching during this period". 

This includes students on School Support Plus. Where it is not possible to provide in-school teaching and learning for all students, schools are directed to follow the guidelines for remote learning and SEN.  

Where a school has the capacity to do so after providing in-person learning for students with additional educational needs, 'vulnerable children' can also attend for in-person learning. According to the document, schools should consider things like family life, or educational disadvantage. A further FAQ will be issued to schools next week. 

Public health experts and deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn will host a webinar for special education staff next week, according to John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. 

"This will provide reassurance to our members that all necessary steps are being taken to ensure the safety of all involved in this interim support programme for children with complex special educational needs," said Mr Boyle. 

"High-level meetings regarding the prioritisation of special education staff for the vaccination programme are also taking place."

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