'Culture of blame' won't solve issue of reopening schools, says union

Education Minister Norma Foley and Minster for Special Education Josepha Madigan said that the re-opening of schools "will regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector."
'Culture of blame' won't solve issue of reopening schools, says union

Norma Foley: "Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time." Picture: Larry Cummins

The general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), John Boyle has said that “a culture of blame” is not going to solve the issue of when schools should reopen.

There was a heightened level of anxiety among teachers “that the country is in the State we’re in” he told Newstalk Breakfast.

The number of Covid cases needed to be reduced before schools could reopen, he said.

“We’ve asked for a rethink, we are all extremely nervous.” 

Playing the blame game was not the way to go, he said. 

“We should be working to find a solution.” 

 If the numbers continued to drop then it was possible that schools could reopen on February 1, he added.

“Teachers can’t wait to go back to school.” Mr Boyle said he was really disappointed “that we’ve come to this impasse”.

During the first lockdown schools and teachers did not have the proper supports, he said.

He said that in June last year he had been calling for the schools to reopen.

On the same programme Any Pike of the Forsa trade union, which represents Special Needs Assistants, said that SNAs everywhere did not have confidence in the approach set out by the Government.

“There is a real problem with confidence” and they feared a return to school.

“There is genuine fear and anxiety out there.”

Plans to partially reopen special schools and classes this week were abandoned by Government after it failed to allay concerns around “inconsistent advice" and "conflicting health messaging" about safety in schools.

The Department of Education conceded that the phased return of special schools and classes could not go-ahead Thursday. 

Shared objective

The department said it was "regrettable" that a shared objective that would allow children with special educational needs to return to in-school learning could not be reached.

Unions representing teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) have called on Government to postpone the reopening of schools this week. File Picture.

Unions representing teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) have called on Government to postpone the reopening of schools this week. File Picture.

Education Minister Norma Foley and Minster for Special Education Josepha Madigan hit out at the unions saying that the re-opening of schools "will regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector."

A statement said that the department “listened closely to the issues raised by trade unions and school management bodies” and in response set out “how it would address these concerns”.

The department added: "Despite the clear public health advice and the measures put in place by the Department to support schools in maintaining a safe return for this cohort of students and the public support from the unions to a shared ambition to return there is still no commitment from the primary teacher and SNA trade unions INTO and FORSA to advise their members to commence the limited return of in-person learning for children with special educational needs."

EU Outlier

Ms Foley stated: "It is hugely important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children, and I regret that this has not been possible. The needs of this group of students are such that no-one should be in any doubt of the importance of this goal, and its urgency. 

"We all understand how vulnerable these children are, and how much they need to be in school.

“The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well articulated, and I, along with my officials have listened carefully at every stage of this process. I have full confidence in our public health advice which, at all times, has underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe. 

"This means that we know that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the re-opening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools."

“Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time. We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives, and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs.

“This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50 per cent capacity, to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage in any way with remote learning."

“This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists," said Norma Foley. Picture: Larry Cummins

“This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists," said Norma Foley. Picture: Larry Cummins

Ms Foley added: "We will now need to consider how best to proceed in the interests of children and their families. 

"The needs of our most vulnerable young people are at stake here, and I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that they can be restored to the in-person learning that they need as immediately as possible."

"Overwhelming"

Schools not re-opening leaves thousands of families and their children again at odds for the second time in less than three weeks. It also may be a strong indication that wider school closures could continue past February 1. 

“It’s the uncertainty,” said Nicole Duggan, a mother from Glanmire, Cork. “If you’ve been told twice this is going to happen and then it's taken away that’s very, very hard. I don’t know how they made the same mistake twice. This is about the kids at the end of the day, not about fighting between adults.” 

Liz Kyte, a mother from Glasheen, Cork said: “We’re in a situation now where this lockdown is set to go on, and it’s just overwhelming. I don’t think it's reasonable in any kind of just society to expect families to have to deal with.”

Following emergency meetings this evening, Fórsa and the INTO said they could not support the plans to reopen. 

The INTO said its heard concerns that many parents whose children have special educational needs, and additional underlying health conditions, do not have confidence in sending their children back to school at this time.

Ireland recorded its highest daily death toll since the pandemic began, as a further 93 Covid-19 related deaths were reported. 

The vast majority (89) occurred in January. It brings the total number of deaths related to the virus so far to 2,708. "We cannot afford to drop our guard against the very high levels of infection that remain in the community at present,” said Dr Tony Holohan. 

A fundamental issue for school staff has been the conflicting health messaging, according to INTO general secretary John Boyle. This has left many "totally unconvinced" that the school environment is safe under the current conditions. 

Fórsa head of education Andy Pike said: “We are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself." 

It would be for the best if all parties were to focus on a general reopening of schools once there is an "established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases", he said. 

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