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Phased reopening of special schools planned from next week

No timeline for return of all pupils to classrooms with lack of clarity for Leaving Cert students


Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

The phased reopening of schools begins next week, but there is still no timeline for the return of all pupils to the classrooms. Leaving Cert students are also facing a wait of at least another week for a decision on the 2021 exams, and whether calculated grades are back in the mix.

About 16,000 pupils with special needs will benefit from the deal reached between Education Minister Norma Foley and unions yesterday, and will be the first to return to the classroom since Christmas.

It allows for special schools to reopen from Thursday, February 11, with a maximum of 50pc of pupils attending each day, while special classes in mainstream schools will be back on Monday, February 22.

After two failed attempts last month to reopen in-school education for the most vulnerable pupils, the breakthrough was greatly assisted by the ongoing fall in Covid cases.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, which represents special needs assistants, have also secured a range of enhanced supports and risk-mitigation measures.

Fórsa told its members that based on public health advice cases would continue to decline throughout February, the union executive “determined that returning to limited in-school services was at least as safe as it was last term, if not safer given the improved safety and mitigation measures agreed”.

INTO president Mary Magner said the protocols and plans provided critical protections and deliver a carefully planned, phased return to the classroom for the most vulnerable pupils and their teachers.

She said: “Over the coming weeks, our attention will turn to the general reopening of all primary schools. Against an improving public health landscape, we believe this is possible.”

But uncertainty remains about a return date for more than 900,000 primary and post-primary students, including about 60,000 Leaving Cert candidates.

The public health advice supporting the initial reopening is specific to special schools and special classes.

Ms Foley said yesterday that it would be “foolish” to give a date on when Leaving Cert students would return.

The minister also told RTÉ’s Six One that her department wanted to make a full announcement in “as short a time-space as possible” on whether or not exams would run and how Leaving Cert students would be graded.

A two-hour meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Education finished without any decision on the matter. Ms Foley presented a number of options including using a combination of written exams and calculated grades or reverting to calculated grades.

They also discussed extending the date for the school term, holding the exam later in the year and increasing the number of third-level places.

A hybrid of calculated grades and exams is finding favour within the Cabinet, but it presents huge logistical challenges, and is not favoured by the teacher unions.

Ministers decided to reconvene the meeting next week when, it is hoped, a decision will be made on how the Leaving Cert will be conducted.

There will be further discussions on the options today – and over coming days – within the Leaving Certificate Advisory Group, which includes representatives of students, parents, teachers, school management bodies, the State Examinations Commission and the Department of Education.

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