Recent events have created a great deal of anxiety for children with special educational needs and their families. We at AsIAm understand it is hard to keep track of as the situation develops so rapidly. For this reason, we have created a timeline charting events from the beginning of the latest Covid-19 restrictions until now.
In the December, the Department of Education was initially determined to reopen schools fully with a five-day delay. The hope was that by delaying the opening of schools until January 11th, this would allow families and school staff to minimise contacts and hopefully see if the phase five restrictions would bring case numbers down enough.
In a joint statement, AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland and Inclusions Ireland wrote to the Minister of Education, Norma Foley TD & Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan TD regarding school closures. Included in the letter were statistics showing the impact of previous school closures of some school children with special education needs. It was noted on this occasion that other EU member states have implemented provisions for vulnerable children. The three organisations recommended interim measures be put in place for vulnerable children who are unable to attend school and unable to engage in remote learning.
AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland and Down Syndrome Ireland met with Josepha Madigan TD and were assured that the minister is committed to making sure all students with additional needs continue to receive appropriate education. Madigan tweeted “It is imperative that special schools & special classes remain open where possible.” She was joined by a statement from The Ombudsman for Children’s office which urged cabinet to avoid blanket closure of schools due to disproportionately negative effect on children with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Cabinet announced they were set to agree to the closure of schools and construction sites until the end of January. It was expected cabinet would agree that special schools and special classes would stay open. A further proposal to provide supports for a further 8,000 children with additional needs in mainstream schools – but who are not in special classes – was being examined, according to sources. The idea was that it would be modelled loosely on the summer provision scheme.
Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon observed education had benefits beyond academics such as mental health and social skills. He urged decision makers to take this into account.
January 6th –
Minister Josepha Madigan elaborated on the Department’s commitment to children with special educational needs. She observed a one-size-fits-all approach to education wasn’t suitable.
Meanwhile parents of children with special educational needs were observing the effects of lockdown on their children. Angelina Hynes expressed her relief at the prospect of her daughter Zoe returning to school. She explained that Zoe was one of many children who lost key skills during previous school closures. After months of work, Zoe learned to use a spoon successfully and after closures lost the skill in a matter of days.
Groups representing children with disabilities – Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and AsIAm – welcomed the decision to open special classes and special schools but warned that more than 10,000 students with special educational needs in mainstream classes will not benefit from the measures announced.
This decision was not universally well-received by educators. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation – which represents many special needs teachers – made their opposition clear in statement They called the plan ‘rushed and reckless’ and believed more time was needed to ensure safety for staff and students. Fórsa similarly said the plan was not workable or realistic.
AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland and Down Syndrome Ireland wrote to minister Norma Foley to seek an urgent meeting over this U-Turn to not allow students of special schools and classes to open. CEO Adam Harris called for a “move beyond the blame game” and make a plan to prioritise children attending special classes and include students with additional needs who attend mainstream education. It was recommended that the Department should announce Home Tuition be available to every student enrolled in special class and school and to students in mainstream education who are unable to learn remotely. The statement reiterated that over 18,000 young people have once again been left behind in the Irish response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the previous figures indicating loss of key skills during previous closures. Parents of children with children with special educational needs who cannot learn remotely took to the national airwaves, sharing their story and personal situation.
Discussions continued over the weekend with a piece by CEO Adam Harris: ‘If educating our vulnerable kids is not essential, what is? In this piece Harris noted the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children with special educational needs. “We may all be “in the one storm”, but the suffering of a student with additional needs is not something everyone has had to contend with.” He continued to highlight the already profound disruption to routines, supports and education during previous closures. “Ten months and a major loss of educational and therapeutic support later, it simply cannot be allowed to continue”. Harris concluded that children with additional needs should be prioritised in any return to school and that Minister Foley engage with the disability community to put in place a suite of supports to help our young people manage, as best as they can.
Talks resumed on Monday as AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and Family carers Ireland welcomed commitment from Minister Norma Foley for the prioritisation of the re-opening of schools for students with special educational needs. The groups however warned the department must deliver on this commitment and put interim measures in place. They also urged Department to develop supports such as a summer provision-style programme with therapeutic supports. A spokesman for Ms Foley confirmed that reopening schools would be a priority for special needs pupils and in the meantime, she would examine options for a suite of support measures.
Fórsa, the trade union for SNAs in Ireland, indicated it would support reopening school for children with additional needs pending certain measures. These measures included a phased resumption of services, NPHET assessments of staff and student safety. Prioritization of school staff for receipt of Covid-19 vaccine was also demanded. Fórsa accepted that its demands cannot all be put in place right away, but called for immediate action on those that can, and concrete proposals for the roll-out of the rest.
AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and Family Carers Ireland welcomed this announcement. They repeated their demand for a clear timeframe and supports for SEN children in the meantime. Similarly, to AsIAm, Andy Pike, Head of Education at Fórsa called on the Department of Education and schools to work with unions to rebuild confidence and ensure a swift return to school.
January 14th –
January 14th, the situation seemed to reach a turning point. The government announced a planned return to special schools and primary classes for SEN children. Mr Pike stated there was a shared intention to open schools on ‘a limited basis’s building towards a full re-opening on February 1st. AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and Family Carers Ireland welcomed the announcement but stressed the need for second level students to return as well.
In anticipation of this reopening, AsIAm issued the following explainer. The proposed model included children coming into special schools on alternate days, full reopening for special mainstream classes and home tuition for at-risk children. Parents were recommended to contact their individual schools about seeing how they would be implementing these measures. However, uncertainties again emerged late that night.
Fórsa announced that a deal was not yet certain, with several details left unresolved, such as enhanced safety measures. Similarly, INTO announced while being open to schools opening for SEN students, they required evidence it was safe to do so.
AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland and Inclusion Ireland issued a further statement as the stalemate continued. They stressed the detrimental effects caused by the mixed messages of the previous week. On the events of Friday, they argued “it is totally unacceptable for stakeholders to get their hopes up or to give mixed messages. The most important stakeholder in the return to school are the thousands of children with additional needs who are to benefit. Our young people rely on certainty and predictability. Many are deeply distressed already from last week’s U-turn and now the idea that they will be given just 24 hours’ notice before a possible reopening is cruel and disrespectful. Changing plans often leads to our children experiencing meltdowns or losing trust, at a time when our parents are already being asked to do more than they can be expected to manage.”
The Department of Education hosted a live webinar on Youtube to address concerns over reopening. They pointed to low Covid-19 rates among children currently attending crèches and they said they believed that safety measures in schools were adequate, even with the new virus strains in circulation.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn remarked that public health had continued to prioritise the opening of schools during the pandemic, where possible, but that this had been thwarted by the spike in the disease in recent weeks. Between September and December incidence rates in children were far below that of the general population the webinar was told – in October only about 10 per cent of cases were linked to school outbreaks. INTO urged the Department to reconsider reopening on the 21st. They cited continued concerns around health and safety risks.
Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordán commented on government approach, which he said has been effective since September, was “damaged through mismanagement” by the Department of Education. “Any Government attempt to blame trade unions for its own ineptitude should be rejected by all who genuinely want to see a safe return for special educational needs students,” he added.
In a joint statement AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and Family Carers Ireland said that children with special educational needs, and their families and carers have been almost completely forgotten about in the conversations between stakeholders over the partial re-opening of schools. “The way this issue is being dealt with – with U-turns, mixed messages and false dawns, needs to stop. The Department and education stakeholders need to get this sorted once and for all…We cannot lose sight of the significant harm being done to many students with special educational needs by the continued absence of an adequate level of education supports.” The statement ended with a repeated call for all parties to re-engage to bring the issue to a successful outcome.
Fórsa proceeded to meet on Tuesday evening to come to a decision. Shortly after, they joined INTO in urging the government to delay opening. Pike stated “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.”
Later in the evening Norma Foley issued a statement conceding that the phased re-opening of special schools on the 21st would not be occurring. She outlined the work done over the past two weeks in the form of “consistent, frequent and ongoing engagement at Ministerial and official level with education partners including teacher and SNA unions over the last two weeks, since the initial pause was requested by stakeholders.”
Minister Foley proceeded to explain the measures proposed to stakeholders to enable a safe re-opening such as temporary flexible accommodations to work remotely, temporary waivers to notice periods around parental leave and unpaid leave schemes for those who cannot access childcare and subsidies for childcare. Minister Foley reiterated that Ireland is an outlier in European countries and noted with concern that “This is the first time that Unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists.”
Discussion began early with John Boyle and Norma Foley appearing on Morning Ireland.
Boyle argued that the webinar was not sufficient to reassure educators about the safety of schools. When pressed on the fact there were no closures in the North, he replied vaccination rates were higher there. Foley responded by citing public health advice and protective measures. She noted that Fórsa and INTO agreed to guidelines on the 15th initially. She then said their announcement came at ‘the eleventh hour.’ She noted that Dr. Tony Holohan, despite warning about high community transmission, did not change his assessment of schools as controlled environments. She called for further engagement with the unions and urged them to heed public health advice.
Today with Claire Byrne explored this further. Andy Pike said there was an “unprecedented level of contact” from SNAs expressing concern and anxiety surrounding re-opening of school. As a result, he argued, there was no confidence in the proposed measures to create a safe working environment. Pike agreed that a solution was needed but described the situation as developing at break-neck speed. He conceded that practical steps such as COVID-19 could improve the situation. He was also open to individual schools opening based on levels of willingness.
Josepha Madigan responded that she was extremely disappointed in the situation and Fórsa’s stance. She argued the Department of Education was ‘left with no option’ but to delay reopening due to union opposition. Madigan maintained that public health advice was provided and reiterated Foley’s point about unions ignoring public health advice.
Finally, AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and Family Carers Ireland issued a new statement. They called on Taoiseach Micháel Martin to intervene directly. “Unfortunately, while talks continue, children with special educational needs continue to regress and see the decline of key skills – some severely. This is moving out of the realm of education, and we are facing a welfare and wellbeing crisis for these children and their families. We need additional supports made available as a matter of urgency. We are today writing to An Taoiseach Mícheál Martin to seek a meeting, and will be asking him to co-ordinate a whole-of-Government response to the issues facing the families we represent, and for every effort be made to alleviate the pressure on children with special education needs and their families.”