Teachers and SNAs call for postponement of schools’ reopening

INTO and Fórsa this evening said Government efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students with special education needs (SEN) had failed.

The unions urged the Government to postpone the resumption of school-based SEN services until further discussions can achieve improved safety measures, including Covid testing, leading to the resumption of all school services.

The INTO’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), and the Fórsa Education Executive both met again this evening to determine how best to ensure the safety of everyone in the school community in returning to school.

The INTO executive heard concerns that many parents whose children have special educational needs and additional underlying health conditions don’t have confidence in sending their children back to school at this time. The union is calling on the Department of Education to revise the reopening plan to ensure that these children would continue to be supported remotely, a provision absent from the current proposal.

Fórsa’s Education Division executive committee heard that workers were genuinely fearful that the school environment was unsafe for students and staff. The union said the discrepancy between national Covid-19 safety advice – which is to stay at home and avoid contact with others if at all possible – and inconsistent advice about safety in schools was at the root of staff anxiety.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions. He added that yesterday’s education department webinar, which attracted over 16,000 participants, clearly demonstrated the level of fear and anxiety among school staff.

He said: “We are calling on the Government to avoid a confrontational approach that forces a reopening on tens of thousands of fearful staff who want to follow public health advice. Instead, they should continue to work with us to ensure that schools are safe for students and staff.”

Fórsa’s head of education, Andy Pike said: “The Government hasn’t won the support of special education stakeholders. I’m sure this was not the intention, but we are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.

“SNAs themselves are disability advocates. They know that SEN students need support, not least because so many enter the profession because they themselves have a child or family member with special needs.

“It would be for the best if all parties would focus on a general reopening of schools as soon as possible, once there is an established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases and fresh public health advice that it is safe to do so,” he said.

INTO President Mary Magner said staff were genuinely anxious and fearful about a premature return to schools when Covid-19 confirmed cases and hospitalisations remained so high, and new strains of the virus were increasing the risk of transmission.

She said: “Nobody wants to delay services for children with special educational needs from reopening, but most teachers simply don’t believe it’s safe for themselves, their pupils or their families.”

The unions said parents of children with special educational needs held differing views about the resumption of school services, and that there was also uncertainty about the attitude of individual school boards of management.

Both unions worked hard to achieve progress over the last week – including on protections for teachers or SNAs who were pregnant or at high risk from Covid-19, and the position of staff who lack childcare because of the closure of schools and lack of availability of crèches.

But there had been no movement on health-and-safety assessments, higher-priority access to the vaccine, serial Covid testing, or assessing the level of demand for school-based SEN services.

They are tonight calling on the Government to step back from forcing the reopening of schools, which would create conflict at the height of the pandemic.

Both unions will meet again tomorrow to decide the best way to provide the maximum support to members to ensure their health and safety.