Government abandons plans for reopening of special schools

ireland
Trade unions have called for further talks to achieve improved safety measures in schools. Photo: PA
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James Cox and Vivienne Clarke

The Government has abandoned plans to resume in-class learning in special schools from Thursday.

The Department of Education said the planned return on Thursday was “paused” after teachers and special needs assistants rejected the move.

On Tuesday evening, two major trade unions, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, said efforts to reassure staff over safety had failed.

They called for further talks to achieve improved safety measures, like Covid testing, before they would consider backing the plan.

Sources told The Irish Times that it was highly unlikely that the Department of Education would seek to go ahead with the plan without the support of the unions.

'Culture of blame'

The general secretary of INTO, John Boyle, said “a culture of blame” was not going to solve the issue of when schools should reopen.

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There was a heightened level of anxiety among teachers “that the country is in the state we’re in”, he told Newstalk Breakfast on Wednesday.

The number of Covid cases needed to be reduced before schools could reopen, he said. “We’ve asked for a rethink, we are all extremely nervous.”

Playing the blame game was not the way to go, he said. “We should be working to find a solution.” If the numbers continued to drop then it was possible that schools could reopen on February 1st, he added.

“Teachers can’t wait to go back to school.”

Mr Boyle said he was really disappointed “that we’ve come to this impasse”. During the first lockdown schools and teachers did not have the proper supports, he said. He said that in June last year he had been calling for the schools to reopen.

Government stance

On Tuesday, a Government spokesperson insisted that public health officials still say it is safe to reopen special classes and schools from Thursday.

Sources said Minister for Education Norma Foley made a strong case in a presentation outlining the reasoning behind a push to reopen special education this week at the Government's weekly Cabinet meeting.

“The Government’s position is that special education should open on Thursday,” the Government’s official spokesman said at the weekly briefing after the Cabinet meeting.

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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”.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said: “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.

“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.

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“Despite the many missives from the Minister, the re-opening of SEN schools and classes on Thursday is now impossible. Children with special needs are regressing rapidly, and their parents are at breaking point. This is just not good enough.

“This is a mess entirely of the Department’s own making. Through mismanagement, they have damaged the partnership approach that has worked since September. While everyone’s ultimate wish is to resume in-person special education, this is only on the basis that it is safe to do so in agreement with the unions. Given the dire situation we now find ourselves in, I’m calling on the Taoiseach to intervene and rapidly rebuild the trust between groups that the Minister has forfeited.

“All parties need fully up to date public health guidance to make a fully informed decision on this. I’m also very concerned about the narrative building from Government about the unions. Any attempt by Government to blame trade unions for its own ineptitude should be rejected by all who genuinely want to see a safe return for SEN students.”

 

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