THE Minister for Education Norma Foley has welcomed the plan agreed by the Department of Education with relevant education stakeholders to initiate a phased return to in-person learning for children in special schools and children in special classes in mainstream schools.
Confirmation of the reopening - from February 11 - follows intensive engagement with the trade unions representing teachers and special educational needs assistants, and other relevant stakeholders including parents and school management bodies, to discuss the challenges posed and the supports required to ensure a safe return for this cohort of vulnerable pupils.
In accordance with the agreement pupils will attend special schools on a 50% basis, from February 11, to allow for attendance of reduced numbers within the school setting. This will be reviewed in line with public health advice.
On Monday 22 February, special classes in mainstream schools will re-open to pupils.
Talks between the various stakeholders will continue this week regarding further phases of return so that a wider reopening can be delivered for children as soon as possible.
During the period of school closure, remote learning will continue as it has since January 6.
Recognising that remote learning is particularly challenging for children with additional needs, the Department of Education has put in place a supplementary programme to support the education and/or care needs of pupils with complex needs.
An allocation of five hours per week of home-based teaching or care supports will be made available to eligible pupils. This allocation is intended to supplement, and not replace, the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school and can be provided by a teacher or SNA in a student’s home, at evenings and weekends. Participation in the programme is voluntary for families, teachers and SNAs and must be delivered in accordance with Public Health Advice.
The four–week programme (20 hours) can commence from11 February and can be used by families at any time up until the end of April.
Commenting on today's announcement, Minister Foley said: "I am pleased that we are now in a position to give certainty to children with special education needs and their families on when they can return to school. Learning remotely is particularly hard for these children and I am acutely conscious that the loss of the regular school routine, social interaction with friends, direct face to face access to teachers and special needs assistants as well as therapy interventions have presented a huge challenge and a real risk of regression to the learning, social, emotional development and wellbeing of these pupils."
Ms Foley added: “The re-opening of our schools for all students remains a top priority for Government and I am committed to working on an ongoing basis with all stakeholders to achieve this, in line with public health advice.”
Minister of State Josepha Madigan, who has responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion said: “I welcome the progress to date on the re-opening of special education. We are moving in the right direction. While today’s news is a positive development, it is important to recognise the work that remains in order to ensure that in-person education is provided for every young person to whom remote learning is not suited. There are also students in mainstream education with special education needs who would benefit from in-person education and negotiations to progress this will continue."
She added: “From the beginning, the Government has sought to ensure that the rights of students with special educational needs and their families are protected. They are the students with the greatest level of need in our education system. It is only right that they are given priority in the phased re-opening of our education system. This is recognised across the board. My colleagues and I will continue to work to ensure that every support and reassurance is provided to school staff and families at this time."
Special schools and special classes will be supported in their return by the enhanced school teams put in place by the HSE and the Department of Education. Updated guidance and information on the supports for schools will be made available in advance of the return.