Teachers and SNAs face tests in bid to settle school row

Minister Norma Foley

Katherine Donnelly and Philip Ryan

Fresh efforts are under way to get the partial re-opening of schools back on track, after a day of recriminations over who was to blame for the failure to start the phased return of pupils with special needs from today.

As talks continue, the Government may offer to test all teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) in an attempt to reopen schools for children with special needs.

However, it is expected that antigen tests will be used rather than the more accurate PCR testing.

The move comes after union chiefs asked to have all children and staff in special schools tested for Covid-19 as a condition of returning to work.

The union Fórsa, which represents SNAs, put forward the proposal during talks.


While it had concerns over the accuracy of antigen tests, the union was open to using them.

However, it is understood the proposal was rejected by the Department of Education as it was believed the testing would be too invasive for children with special needs.

But testing for staff may offered as a compromise.

The department also continued to insist public health advice on Covid-19 says schools are safe environments for teachers and students when compared with other workplaces.

Education Minister Norma Foley yesterday met management bodies in the primary sector to get their views on re-opening.

Today her department is engaging with the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa.

Moves aimed at staggering the return of 23,000 pupils had ended in controversy on Tuesday night when Ms Foley abandoned the plan because of a lack of co-operation from the unions.

At the heart of union opposition is a fear among members of returning at a time of high levels of Covid-19 infection.

The collapse led to calls on Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil to intervene, with claims that the ministers involved had "lost control" of the situation.

Meanwhile, families of children with special needs are seeking a meeting with Mr Martin to press for urgent supports to help them while schools remain closed to their children.

Four advocacy organisations said the issue was "moving of the realm of education" and they were "facing a welfare and wellbeing crisis for these children and their families".

AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland expressed deep disappointment at the failure to re-open schools for children with special needs.

"The latest news on the continued closure of schools for children with special educational needs is another cruel blow to families," they said. But while efforts to re-open schools continued, they said urgent additional supports were required for the children and families affected to avert a child wellbeing crisis.

Meanwhile, Ms Foley is facing pressure on another related front with a survey showing that four in five Leaving Cert students want a choice between calculated grades and sitting June exams this year.

The first preference of over half of the students - 55pc - is to have that flexibility and the figure rises to 81pc when second preferences are included.

Only 4pc of students - one in 25 - voted for the conventional exams as their top option in the Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU) survey.

The appetite for change from tradition in 2021 has emerged in responses from more than 20,000 students in 480 post-primary schools, including more than 13,000 sixth years.

Leaving Cert candidates have already suffered severe disruption to their education as a result of Covid and there is no certainty about when they will return to school.