Daniel McConnell: Failed school reopening plan is predictable and disappointing

Education minister Norma Foley is under pressure after abandoning plans to reopen schools for the second time in a fortnight.
Daniel McConnell: Failed school reopening plan is predictable and disappointing

Education Minister Norma Foley has again had to park plans to partially reopen schools after union opposition. File Picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

The fresh rejection of proposals to get special needs students back to school on Thursday by teacher unions is a sadly predictable outcome.

As a result, Education Minister Norma Foley has, for the second time in as many weeks, abandoned her plans to get special needs students back into the classroom.

Such a capitulation to the so-called “education partners” is deeply damaging to the Government’s hopes to get the country’s one million children back to school, leaving some to speculate that it could be several months before it happens.

Such dire warnings obviously place this year’s Leaving Certificate in fresh jeopardy.

The joint statement from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa said efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students with special education needs (SEN) had failed.

“The unions urged the Government to postpone the resumption of school-based SEN services until further discussions can achieve improved safety measures including Covid testing, leading to the resumption of all school services,” the statement said.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions. He added that an education department webinar earlier this week, which attracted over 16,000 participants, clearly demonstrated the level of fear and anxiety among school staff.

“We are calling on the Government to avoid a confrontational approach that forces a reopening on tens of thousands of fearful staff who want to follow public health advice. Instead, they should continue to work with us to ensure that schools are safe for students and staff,” he said.

As a rookie minister, Ms Foley’s standing and authority is greatly diminished by the double failure to get the schools reopened, undoing much of the progress made since schools opened in September.

There is distinct frustration within government as to the continued stranglehold over what happens in school by the unions who far too many times in recent history have not covered themselves in glory.

Even when Covid-19 case numbers were in single digits last summer, they cried foul.

Labour spokesperson on Education, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD called on the Taoiseach to intervene to resolve the shambles that his Minister and her Department have created over the reopening of schools for children with special needs.

“The Minister for Education and her Department have handled the reopening of schools for SEN students in a shambolic way. For the second time in as many weeks a failure to work with the trade unions of education workers has resulted in a total lack of confidence in their safety if they return to classrooms. I reiterate my call from earlier today for the Taoiseach to intervene to resolve this shambles. A flexible approach with discretion for individual schools is now needed to allow local circumstances and the needs of individual students to be considered in any reopening plan,” he said.

Unions obviously will do what unions do, but it is alarming to see that a democratically elected Education Minister stymied, not once but twice now, in her desire to re-open the schools.

Serious questions have to be asked of government but also of the permeating dynamic the Department of Education has with its employees.

The victims in all of this, once again, are the most vulnerable and needy children who have been failed and failed utterly.

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