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Government abandons plans for partial re-opening of schools on Thursday after union opposition


Teachers raised concerns ahead of plans to reopen special schools on Thursday.

Teachers raised concerns ahead of plans to reopen special schools on Thursday.

Teachers raised concerns ahead of plans to reopen special schools on Thursday.

The Government has been forced to abandon plans for a partial re-opening of schools on Thursday in the face of union opposition.

Education Minister Norma Foley has conceded that the phased return for thousands of vulnerable pupils cannot go ahead because of lack of co-operation.

It follows a decision by the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, representing special needs assistants (SNAs) to reject proposals for reopening because of health and safety concerns.

Ms Foley tonight said it was the first time that unions had refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists.

She said Ireland was an outlier in the EU in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time.

The minister also noted that the INTO represented teachers both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland and many schools in the North were currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs.

”It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here," she said.

Junior minister for special education Josepha Madigan also picked up on that point.

“If special educational setting can remain open as essential services in other jurisdictions, including in Northern Ireland, there is be no reason why it should not possible here,” she said.

Ms Foley said it was ”hugely important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children, and I regret that that this has not been possible.”

She said the department had been seeking to support in school provision for just over 23,000 children - 4pc of those who would attend during a full re-opening - the children who experience the greatest difficulty with remote learning.

“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.”

She said the concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs had been well articulated, and she and her officials had listened carefully at every stage of this process.

“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."

Ms Foley said the Government had sought “to agree an approach balancing the need to support our most vulnerable children while addressing the concerns of staff.

“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.”

Labour spokesperson on Education, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has 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,” he said.

“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.

In a joint statement, 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.

They called for a postponement of the partial re-opening, which was due to start on Thursday.

They called for further discussions on how to “achieve improved safety measures including Covid testing, leading to the resumption of all school services”.

The INTO’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), and the Fórsa Education Executive both met again after further consultations with the Department of Education

The INTO executive heard concerns that many parents whose children have special educational needs and additional underlying health conditions don’t have confidence in sending their children back to school at this time.

Fórsa’s Education Division executive committee heard that workers were genuinely fearful that the school environment was unsafe for students and staff. The union said the discrepancy between national Covid-19 safety advice – which is to stay at home and avoid contact with others if at all possible – and inconsistent advice about safety in schools was at the root of staff anxiety.

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 yesterday’s education department webinar, 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.

Fórsa’s head of education, Andy Pike said, “The Government hasn’t won the support of special education stakeholders. I’m sure this was not the intention, but we are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.

“SNAs themselves are disability advocates. They know that SEN students need support, not least because so many enter the profession because they themselves have a child or family member with special needs.

“It would be for the best if all parties would focus on a general reopening of schools as soon as possible, once there is an established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases and fresh public health advice that it is safe to do so,” he said.

INTO President Mary Magner said staff were genuinely anxious and fearful about a premature return to schools when Covid-19 confirmed cases and hospitalisations remained so high, and new strains of the virus were increasing the risk of transmission.

“Nobody wants to delay services for children with special educational needs from reopening, but most teachers simply don’t believe it’s safe for themselves, their pupils or their families,” she said.

The unions said parents of children with special educational needs held differing views about the resumption of school services, and that there was also uncertainty about the attitude of individual school boards of management.

Both unions said they worked hard to achieve progress over the last week – including on protections for teachers or SNAs who were pregnant or at high risk from Covid-19, and the position of staff who lack childcare because of the closure of schools and lack of availability of crèches.

“But there had been no movement on health and safety assessments, higher-priority access to the vaccine, serial Covid testing, or assessing the level of demand for school-based SEN services”, the statement said.

They called on the Government “to step back from forcing the reopening of schools, which would create conflict at the height of the pandemic.”

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