The Minister for Education Norma Foley TD and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan TD have this evening confirmed that a to in-school learning on Thursday 21 January, will not be possible "owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector"
According to a statement released this evening - "After unprecedented engagement with primary and special education stakeholders it had been hoped that a shared objective to support children with special educational needs return to in-school learning, could be reached. This included 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. This built upon the very significant engagement which has taken place with stakeholders throughout this pandemic."
This evening, Minister Foley said: “It is hugely important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children, and I regret that that this has not been possible. The needs of this group of students are such that no-one should be in any doubt of the importance of this goal, and its urgency. We all understand how vulnerable these children are, and how much they need to be in school.
“The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well articulated, and I, along with my officials have listened carefully at every stage of this process. I have full confidence in our public health advice which, at all times, has underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe. This means that we know that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the re-opening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
“Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time. We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives, and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs.
“This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50 per cent capacity, to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage in any way with remote learning.
“We have provided guidance and flexibility in relation to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19, to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexibility for schools to manage this situation and return to in-person learning over the coming days, to organise and manage their staffing in this context.
“The INTO represents teachers both here and in Northern Ireland. Many schools in the North are currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs. It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here.
“The Government has sought to agree an approach balancing the need to support our most vulnerable children while addressing the concerns of staff. We will now need to consider how best to proceed in the interests of children and their families. The needs of our most vulnerable young people are at stake here, and I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that they can be restored to the in-person learning that they need as immediately as possible.
Minister Madigan said: “I am very disappointed that work to support students with special educational needs at this difficult time has not been able to proceed. Over the past year, we have all seen how vital in-person education is for students with special educational needs.
“This matter has been highlighted not only by the families of the students themselves, but also by all the partners in education and representative groups, in regular meetings with department officials. Everyone recognises that distance learning does not work for every child.
“Recent weeks have seen intense and regular engagement with partners to seek a solution to this, while providing necessary assurances to everyone in our education system. If special educational setting can remain open as essential services in other jurisdictions, including in Northern Ireland, there is be no reason why it should not possible here.”
The ministers also noted - "As teachers and SNAs are essential workers, they will continue to have access to childcare facilities, in line with the arrangements set out by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability Integration and Youth.
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