1st February 2021
Over the last two weeks, the INTO has participated in intensive engagement with the Department of Education and Fórsa. The Central Executive Committee of the INTO has considered detailed proposals on a slow, phased and partial resumption of special education from mid-February. The CEC has always insisted that additional supports, safeguards and risk-mitigation measures be put in place prior to any phased-reopening of special education facilities during the current government restrictions. The CEC felt that it would be imperative that schools be given adequate notice and time to plan for the resumption of school-based activity. Furthermore, the INTO understands that detailed documentation will issue to schools tomorrow.
This resumption will commence with the partial reopening of special schools, where there may be a maximum of fifty percent of pupils attending on alternate days and shortly thereafter include special education classes in mainstream schools. It is expected that special schools will open on Thursday, 11 February and that special classes in mainstream schools will open on Monday, 22 February.
The INTO has always insisted that any decision related to our schools, during this pandemic, must be led by definitive up to date public health advice. Clear advice has now been provided by our public health authorities that this limited and partial reopening, along the terms agreed with this union, will not give rise to an increase in school-based or community transmission. Following the significant decrease in the 14 day average of infection rates since mid-January and the much lower reproduction rate of the virus NPHET further project that the public health landscape is expected to continue improving and will have improved considerably at the commencement of this interim plan.
Detailed plans, which the INTO and Fórsa have scrutinised, will be circulated to schools tomorrow. They will include detailed information on the steps which need to be taken for the planned resumption of in-school support for pupils with special educational needs. We have jointly insisted that boards of management must be given adequate notice, guidance and time to plan for this phased reopening and to liaise with parents of children with special educational needs.
Ahead of detailed guidance being issued tomorrow, the INTO can this evening confirm that, following engagement with the Department of Education, we have secured a suite of necessary additional supports for special education facilities.
- Robust risk mitigation measures.
- Augmented school support teams in all HSE areas to provide advice, contact tracing and bulk fast-track testing.
- Flexible arrangements for staff in high risk health categories to continue working from home throughout the interim programme.
- Financial support for families who wish to transport their children to school for the duration of the programme.
- The publication of school based testing reports to inform our understanding of transmission rates in schools during the interim period.
- High grade face masks to be provided to any teacher who seeks them.
- A public awareness campaign designed to ensure compliance with public health advice in schools.
- Clarity on the higher priority rating of special education staff within the vaccination schedule.
While the INTO will continue to engage with the Department of Education on the limited reopening of special education provision, planning will also get underway for the wider reopening of our schools.
Following a special meeting of the INTO’s Central Executive Committee this afternoon, INTO President Mary Magner said:
Two guiding principles have led our engagement with government throughout this long crisis – that decisions must be underpinned by up to date public health advice and that the safety of our members is paramount. The protocols and plans set out by the Department of Education offer a proportionate and limited reopening of special education provision, led by public health advice. They provide critical protections for our members and deliver a carefully planned, phased return to the classroom for our most vulnerable pupils and their teachers. We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground closely both ahead of the reopening and thereafter, to ensure that the weekly testing and tracing reports back up NPHET’s conclusions.
Over the last number of weeks we have seen politicians and media pundits alike seek to pit teachers against children with special educational needs, having never before spoken up for investment in special education. The people of Ireland saw through this transparent attack on a 150-year old union that has championed the rights of pupils with pride.
Over the coming weeks, our attention will turn to the general reopening of all primary schools. Against an improving public health landscape, we believe this is possible. However, the power to make this happen rests with each and every one of us. We must all do what we can to limit our movements and abide by the current restrictions. By working closely together classroom learning can resume in safer schools.