Rushed and reckless decision on reopening special educational settings risks undermining public health objectives

After two days of increasing speculation, the government has today announced the closure of the majority of primary schools until 1 February 2021. For the second time during this pandemic, mainstream primary education will move online. The INTO understands that special schools, special classes and other specialised settings – secure units etc. will reopen on Monday, 11 January 2021. The Department of Education did not consult with the INTO on this decision to provide face to face education for children with special educational needs.

The INTO and other key stakeholders in primary and special education were invited to a very short briefing meeting this afternoon. The INTO and other stakeholders expressed serious concern about the Department’s expectation that these specialised settings could simply reopen fully from next Monday without necessary preparation time and protections required for staff and students when virtually everyone else in the country was being forced to stay at home in a frantic effort to flatten the curve.

Special schools, students and staff do not exist in a bubble separate from wider society. The sustainable and safe reopening of these schools and classes should be based on specific health advice, with adequate preparation and a staged reopening. The rushed plan as laid out today is reckless and takes unnecessary risks which could easily be avoided. In light of public health advice, it is questionable whether attendance at such premises will be other than minimal.

It is ironic that building sites are being closed on public health grounds just as pupils and staff are sent to work together with little evidence of additional safety assessments, specific public health review of risk and clear additional supports.

The INTO has insisted that any decisions being made by government regarding the re-opening of schools, and in particular special educational settings, would be under-pinned by the most up-to-date public health advice. In particular we have drawn attention to the increasing number of young children who have tested positive for Covid-19 within the last two weeks and sought a thorough analysis of these figures relating to any new variants of the virus.

We are calling on the public health authorities to carry out an assessment of the safety of opening special schools, classes and specialised educational settings and to make recommendations to ensure the safety of staff and pupils.

Access to school buildings and childcare

The INTO was briefed today that teachers are authorised to access school buildings to support remote learning as needed and the 5km travel restriction will not apply in this instance or for education staff who will be facilitating face to face learning in specialised settings.

However, we urge that schools would ensure that as far as possible, teachers are able to comply with public health guidance and remain at home.

We were also informed that childcare provision would be made for special education staff, but there was no clarity on how this would work.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said:

“In light of the deteriorating public health landscape and the increasing impact of the new Covid-19 variant, questions now need to be asked about elements of the government’s plan – how is it safe for staff or children to attend special education settings?.

We will seek to engage urgently with the Department of Education and NPHET to assess how special schools, special classes in mainstream primary schools and other high-risk units will be run and the steps which will be taken to protect the health and welfare of our members in those schools.

The government must also publish NPHET’s latest advice alongside up to date public health figures setting out the public health basis for the decision to provide special education as normal within schools.

It’s imperative that these members required to facilitate face to face learning, as front-line workers during the worst of the pandemic, should receive early vaccination and proper protection in the workplace.”