The Republic of Ireland is an outlier in Europe in not reopening schools for children with special needs after the Christmas recess. The effects of this on many children with special education needs and their families has been extremely challenging. We have heard very worrying stories and reports of families left alone without support, children losing their essential routines and fundamental life skills. Families are finding themselves in the same position as they did almost one year ago without essential support services. It is time for the government to begin to work with teachers not against them to ensure that all children, but especially children with special educational needs receive the support and education they deserve.

David Gardiner, Workers’ Party Dublin Mid-West said

“Over the past few weeks, we have watched in utter dismay as the Minister for Education and her department seriously mishandled the situation. The Minister, Norma Foley, claimed that an agreement had been reached with unions and other stakeholders for the reopening of schools for children with special needs and when this claim proved to be completely false, she accused the unions of being disingenuous. This is hardly the response expected from someone who is seeking a solution to a difficult situation. She has attempted to pit parents of vulnerable children against teachers and SNAs when the only people at fault are the Government themselves for their total lack of planning or strategy.”

“Many children with learning disabilities are not suited for remote learning due to communication difficulties. Special education services are thus deemed essential services. But not all children with special education needs attend special education schools. Approximately 16,000 children attend special classes in mainstream schools while thousands of children with special needs are enrolled in mainstream classes. There has been little if any media coverage of the fact that there are parents of children with special educational needs attending mainstream schools who do not want their children to return until schools have reopened for all children.”

He continued “School authorities, teachers and SNAs also have concerns regarding the potential damaging consequences of the Minister’s inflexibility surrounding how the schools would reopen. In striving to develop an inclusive education system schools have tried to steer away from labelling children. There was a clear danger inherent in the Minister’s inflexible directive in expecting some children to attend school while their school friends stayed at home. It lacked any sensitivity to the emotional damage labelling could cause to the children post Covid.  A flexible approach is required so that individual schools can work with parents in a discreet manner that allows for the individual needs of each child to be considered.”

“The Workers’ Party calls on the Minister to trust the education stakeholders and to allow schools in conjunction with parents to put in place a system of support, including face to face learning and home learning, that will suit the individual needs of the children. It is patently clear that teachers and SNAs want to return to work but they want to return to a safe environment for both themselves and the children. Unions are rightfully protecting their members. It is their duty to ensure that the necessary protections are in place for staff to return to school. It is also vital that childcare facilities are realistically accessible to all school staff concerned.”

He concluded “Conflicting health messages have not helped to put people’s minds at ease about returning to the classroom. There is a genuine level of fear and anxiety among staff and that must be addressed in a clam and considered way. Rushed attempts to reopen special education schools have left people feeling uneasy and have caused a significant and unnecessary amount of anger and confusion.”

“Children with special needs have been failed this month. It is now critically important that appropriate learning supports are put in place safely and without further delay.  We must also look to how we can best support children with special education needs and all children who have been adversely affected by school closures, post COVID. In this regards it is imperative that class sizes in primary schools are drastically reduced and that no class will have more than 20 students. Supporting those children will require an increase in the number of walking principals and deputy principals, support teachers, home school liaison teachers and SNAs. It will also call for an expansion of the National Education Psychological Services, child and adolescent psychiatric services, and the School Completion Programme, as well as speech and language, occupational and other therapies. It is time for the government to begin to work with teachers not against them to ensure that all children, but especially children with special educational needs receive the support and education they deserve.”