Taoiseach urged to intervene in schools reopening amid claims Ministers have 'lost control'

The Department of Education conceded last night that the phased return of special schools and classes could not go ahead on Thursday.
Taoiseach urged to intervene in schools reopening amid claims Ministers have 'lost control'

Calls have been made on the Taoiseach to directly intervene in talks to reopen special education as the responsible Ministers have "lost control" of the situation.

Opposition parties have rounded on Education Minister Norma Foley and have questioned her ability to get children with special education needs back into the classroom following two failed attempts.

Sinn Féin and Labour have also hit out at Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan after she compared children with additional needs not attending school to the mother and baby homes.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald told the Dáil that responsibility for the "mess" lies squarely with the Government as they failed to develop a Plan B.

"Your government has now abandoned plans to reopen special schools this week and special education. Minister Foley has twice promised that this would happen and she has twice failed to deliver on the promises," she told the Taoiseach.

She said the Education Minister had shown "gross misjudgement" on special schools and had "rushed very quickly to point fingers" at SNAs and teachers when the Government is responsible for the "fiasco".

However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said engagement with representatives continues and Ms Foley will be speaking to the parents of children with special educational needs today.

"It's wrong to play politics with children with special needs, which is what I've witnessed this morning," he said.

Labour's education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordán called on the Taoiseach to get involved in failed talks to reopen special education.

Referring to comments made by Ms Madigan and Ms Foley, he said: "We have been doing our best as a political entity to try to be constructive.

"So Taoiseach can I ask you in the spirit of being constructive, that your office will now get centrally involved in the situation, that you would appreciate the severity of the situation and how dangerous it is for young people to be out of school for this length of time.

"Will you recognise that the entire reopening of schools is now in jeopardy because of the bad faith that has been shown by ministers in their public comments?"

He suggested that the next round of vaccinations should include those working in education.

Speaking on radio this morning, Ms Madigan said: "We spent last week talking about Mother and Baby Homes, where our most vulnerable were left to their own devices in less than satisfactory conditions and we're now allowing further anxiety and upset to be placed on the shoulders of parents whose children desperately need to go to school."

Separately Ms Madigan has corrected the record of the Dáil today after she referred to children without special educational needs as "normal" during a debate last week.

Education Minister Norma Foley said: "There can be nothing more essential than providing care and education for children with additional needs."

Education Minister Norma Foley said: "There can be nothing more essential than providing care and education for children with additional needs."

"The word was not appropriate and I did not use this intentionally. This is not what I meant to say," she told the Dáil.

Earlier, Ms Foley slammed a union head as "disingenuous" as the row over special schools became increasingly divisive. 

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

Appearing on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, John Boyle from the INTO said his union very clearly did not instruct its members not to show up for work tomorrow, something Education Minister Norma Foley called "incredibly disingenuous".

"He has made it very clear in statements that they were not happy to accept the public health advice that was issued to them, that they were not happy to accept all of the measures that were put in place," she said.

"The public health advice was categorical, unequivocal, and this is public health advice that came from two experts who have worked hand in hand and with whom, Mr Boyle, and the other union leaders met on a weekly basis throughout the reopening of our schools."

It was pointed out that nowhere in their statement did the unions say they had instructed their members not to show.

Ms Foley replied that "guidelines were issued last Friday, guidelines that they had seen, and that they were happy to issue to schools in preparation for a reopening on Thursday, and now at the 11th hour, they have said that they cannot accept the public health advice and we had no guarantee, none whatsoever, from the unions that staff will be prepared to turn up on the day".

It was pointed out to Ms Foley that the public health advice given to teachers did not garner much confidence in their return.

A statement by deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn's has been highlighted among the union concerns. Mr Glynn said: "The experience to date does align with the fact that schools in themselves are a safe environment, but whenever you have levels of transmission like this the reality is that schools and everything else we provide are threatened, and unfortunately that came to pass."

Ms Foley said the statement should be seen in the "broader context of what was also said that day and indeed what has been said previously in relation to public health, that when, generally, society is not doing what general society has been asked to do in terms of reducing contacts and following public health advice, it puts us in a precarious position".

"It did not change, schools had proven themselves to be safe environments.

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