Latest developments – proposed in-school support for children with significant additional needs

Following the strong reaction from most stakeholders, including school managerial authorities and education unions against the government’s rushed decision to reopen special schools and special classes last Monday, engagement between the INTO, education stakeholders and officials from the Department of Education and NPHET has intensified. The INTO has remained committed to securing an orderly and safe reopening of our primary and special schools, with a particular focus on how we can best support our most vulnerable pupils who are at risk of disengaging from remote learning.

The INTO Central Executive Committee met last evening, following the latest round of talks with the Department of Education. The executive was briefed on a revised proposal for a phased limited reopening of special schools with reduced capacity on transport and in school.

The executive was also briefed that plans were being developed which would see small groups of primary pupils with additional needs, who are at risk of disengaging from remote learning, returning to school in mainstream schools, with special education teachers, SNAs and other staff who do not teach mainstream classes providing in-school support. All other mainstream teachers would continue to remotely support their classes and would not be expected to return to their schools this month.

The INTO has always insisted that any decision on a full or partial reopening of our schools must be informed by public health advice. As such, the INTO has demanded that an up to date public health assessment must be published to assess these proposals from that vital perspective. The INTO has received assurance that senior members of the NPHET and the public health experts who have regularly engaged with the INTO since October will communicate directly with special education staff, principal teachers  and boards of management in the coming days.

In recognition that this proposal requires special education teachers to return to their schools ahead of their mainstream colleagues, and of the very close care and attention these teachers give to their pupils , it is only right that they should be moved higher up the vaccine priority list. We expect the government to shortly re-state the commitment made this week by An Tánaiste  that those who work in special education will be prioritised in this manner, thereby ensuring swifter access to the vaccine.

The views of the Central Executive Committee were made clear to the Department of Education at today’s meeting of stakeholders including that the CEC believed these proposals should not be implemented early next week, which was the preferred option of the Department.

The CEC indicated support for these proposals on the understanding that the Department of Education supported by government will:

  • Provide time to school management and staff to plan for the return to in-school provision for vulnerable pupils.
  • Publish up to date public health advice on the particulars of this proposal.
  • Give higher prioritisation of special education staff for the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Continue proper consultation with the INTO on all future proposals regarding the safe and orderly reopening of schools.
  • Augment the public health supports and testing/tracing available to schools with immediate effect.
  • Ensure that childcare is available for special education staff who are parents.
  • Communicate clearly with special education staff and principals in advance of their return to school buildings.

While we welcome the increased engagement and input of public health into decision making, it is imperative that government makes it abundantly clear that failure to comply with the wider public health advice during the phased return to school risks undermining efforts to ensure a safe, orderly return to school for all pupils. In that regard, it will not be acceptable for children who are exhibiting symptoms or who are close contacts of confirmed cases to attend school as all necessary steps must be taken to protect the health and safety of the staff, students and their families.

The INTO will continue its participation in engagement on these proposals and the supports required to make them work with a renewed focus on the fuller reopening of schools and we will endeavour to keep members fully informed in the coming days.

We will also provide updates and guidance to members who will be providing in-school support to a small number of vulnerable pupils from next Thursday onwards.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said:

“Our members have a proud tradition of advocating and delivering for vulnerable children. I acknowledge that many are very concerned about their safety on their return to school from next Thursday. We will continue to demand that government fully support the efforts of our members to help vulnerable pupils to reengage with in-school teaching and learning. The constructive work done by all of the partners in primary and special education since last Friday demonstrates our commitment to returning in a safe orderly manner to in-school teaching and learning and this endeavour must be acknowledged and fully supported by government.”