3,000 pupils in special classes in post-primary schools to return to the classroom on February 22

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Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor

About 3,000 pupils in special classes in post-primary schools will return to the classroom on February 22.

The leadership of the two second- level teacher unions have agreed to co-operate with the limited reopening.

It means students attending these classes will return for in-person teaching and learning on the same day on which primary school special classes go back.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) announced its co-operation earlier this evening and subsequently the Association of Secondary Teachers lreland (ASTI) gave its backing.

The ASTI’s support came after a contentious meeting of its Standing Committee, which warned that the overall Framework Plan for a safe return of schools was “inadequate”.

The ASTI leadership said the plan “needs to be substantially reworked in order to ensure a safe phased return of all students in the coming period of time”.

The February 22 date was agreed in talks between the Department of Education and the education partners, including teacher unions, parents and school management bodies.

The TUI executive committee also unanimously decided to facilitate the return of Leaving Cert students from some point in the same week, subject to public health advice.

The breakthrough on special classes – and potentially Leaving Cert students - is another small step in the phased re-opening of schools for the first time since the Christmas holidays.

Overall, it means a path has been cleared for up to 20,000 pupils with special needs, across primary and post-primary, to get back to the classroom.

But that represents only a tiny fraction of pupils and there are more than 900,000 awaiting a return date.

Talks have been ongoing between the department and the education partners about a wider return and much will depend on the scale of the improvement in the public health landscape.

High levels of Covid-19 transmission in January left teachers, special needs assistants and many parents nervous about schools re-opening in January forcing the abandonment of plans.

TUI president Martin Marjoram said in taking its decision, the union “acknowledges the vital importance of face-to-face provision for this cohort of students and took note of the range of additional supports and measures that have been agreed to protect students and staff.

“These measures, which had been sought by TUI, include full contact tracing and fast-track testing, provision of high grade PPE for special education teachers and arrangements for staff in high-risk health categories and pregnant teachers to continue to provide remote learning.”

The limited re-opening agreements at primary and post primary do not cover pupils with special needs who are in mainstream classes.

Education Minister Norma Foley said it remained a priority for the Department of Education to agree a shared pathway to in-school learning for children with special needs in mainstream classes in mainstream schools as soon as possible.

She said a five hours a week supplementary programme to support the education and/or care needs of pupils with complex needs - in addition to the remote teaching provided by schools – was in place.

Ms Foley said intensive engagement was continuing with education stakeholders, towards a full return of all students to in-person teaching and learning in primary and post primary schools as soon as possible and when it is safe to do so.