19 January, 2021 - Statement from the Department of Education

Minister for Education Norma Foley TD and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan TD have confirmed that a phased return for children with special educational needs to in-school learning on Thursday 21 January, will regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector.

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.

During this period, the Minister for Education and her officials have listened closely to the issues raised by trade unions and school management bodies.

These included requests for clear messaging around public health to be given directly to their members by Public Health specialists, temporary arrangements during the current phase of reopening for high risk staff and for those experiencing childcare difficulties.

In response the Department set out to the unions how it would address these concerns. Proposed measures would put in place temporary flexible accommodations to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care. These temporary arrangements were only possible due to the very significant reduction of children on-site under the proposed phased reopening.

Temporary waivers to notice periods around parental leave and unpaid leave schemes for those who cannot access childcare would also be facilitated.

Staff unions have been notified that speedy turnaround for applications through the National Childcare scheme will be facilitated and that generous subsidies for full time childcare are available for essential workers in the education sector who have school aged children, particularly for those staff members on lower incomes. 

Pregnant teachers and SNAs are to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff is developed by occupational and public health doctors.

A webinar that had significant attendance by frontline education staff was held by the Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn and senior public health consultants which was directly accessible through online streaming to all education sector staff to address public health concerns that have been raised.

It was reaffirmed clearly that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students. The webinar was held at the request of stakeholders to facilitate direct communication to staff and built upon the regular weekly meetings held between public health specialists supporting schools and education stakeholders.

In this context it is considered that schools could reopen for priority groups such as special needs children who are unable to engage in remote teaching, as school closures has significant impacts on children with special educational needs. While the general advice is that people stay at home, this does not apply to essential workers providing an essential service.

Despite the clear public health advice and the measures put in place by the Department to support schools in maintaining a safe return for this cohort of students and the public support from the unions to a shared ambition to return there is still no commitment from the primary teacher and SNA trade unions INTO and FORSA to advise their members to commence the limited return of in-person learning for children with special educational needs. This is in the context of the Department seeking to support in school provision for just over 23,000 children with SEN (or just 4% of those who would attend during a full re-opening). These children are those who experience the greatest difficulty benefitting from remote learning.

The guidance documents issued by the Department to stakeholders outlined how schools could continue to support children remotely and for in-school provision, addressing the concerns raised by unions this evening.

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.”



Notes for Editors

It should be noted that adult disability services continue to operate at this time.

During Covid-19, agreement was reached by Government and ICTU (of whom Forsa and INTO are affiliate unions) on a “Return to work safely protocol” which has been implemented in all schools and set out fully and signed off in their Covid Response Plans. Schools were given significant additional funding to put those measures in place. Schools have been asked to make sure that all public health advice measures are still in place including updated advice for SNAs and the provision of appropriate medical grade masks and PPE. 

Mechanisms including Lead Worker Representatives are in place for staff to address any concerns that measures are not in place as set out in the Work Safely Protocol. The engagements with the partners also considered issues childcare for teachers and SNAs and arrangements for staff members at high risk from Covid-19.

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.