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Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Government plans to reopen schools for pupils with special needs on Thursday are in chaos amidst a backlash from teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs).

In a serious setback, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) last night called for the move to be reconsidered. Now it will be a race against the clock to overcome what the INTO has described as "grave safety concerns".

The INTO's statement will be a devastating blow to families of thousands of children with special needs, who have suffered most by being out of school during the pandemic.

But an emergency meeting of the union's executive committee said their concerns had not been adequately addressed by a special public health webinar yesterday and by Government.

The INTO executive meets again today to assess the situation, as will the leadership of the Fórsa union, which represents 12,000 special needs assistants and which is also seeking more assurances on health and safety measures.

The INTO said it would "continue to engage with the Department of Education and public health authorities in an effort to work towards a safe, phased re-opening".

However, up-to-date, reliable information and supports are essential if this effort is to succeed.

If the partial re-opening is abandoned, it will be the second time in a fortnight that Education Minister Norma Foley has been forced to retreat on this issue.

Staggered

After a false start the previous week, talks with the unions got under way and, last Thursday, Ms Foley and Junior Minister for Special Education, Josepha Madigan, announced a "shared ambition" for a staggered re-opening.

This would start with the phased return of pupils with special needs from this coming Thursday.

Detailed arrangements were sent to schools last Friday, following agreement with the unions, but it later emerged that there were issues to be resolved.

Friday's release sparked fury among the ranks of special education staff at being asked to go back to work while the community at large is told to stay at home because of high Covid infection rates.

Advocacy organisations representing families with children with special needs were subjected to some of the anger.

A webinar yesterday was aimed at reassuring special education teachers and SNAs that it was safe for them to return to schools, but it met much hostile reaction.

Around 16,000 participants logged on for the hour-long session presented by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn, HSE Assistant National Director Dr Kevin Kelleher and public health consultant Dr Abigail Collins.

But their efforts to allay fears were greeted with comments such as "waste of time", "insult to all", "patronising" and "old data". The latter remark related to the use of Covid figures from schools last term.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said the webinar did not address teachers' concerns. He laid the blame for the current debacle at the feet of the Government.

Messages

Mr Boyle said they "must take responsibility for poor and untimely communication and mixed messages over the past two weeks".

He continued: "The failure of Minister Foley and Minister Madigan to engage in proper consultation in the last two weeks has been very damaging and it has hampered the planning for the safe re-opening of schools.

"Issues of concern include childcare facilities, special education staff in high-risk categories, those aged over 60 and pregnant staff, and an update on the prioritisation of special education staff for access to the Covid-19 vaccine."


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