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Special education Mum of special needs girl says return to school was 'fantastic' but 'confusing'

Under a plan agreed between the Department of Education and teacher and SNA trade unions, 124 special education schools opened their doors yesterday.

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Barbara Hayden with her daughter Lauren

Barbara Hayden with her daughter Lauren

Barbara Hayden with her daughter Lauren

A Dublin mum has described how she had mixed emotions as her 12-year-old daughter Lauren finally got to go back to school after weeks of home schooling this week. 

Up to 4,000 children with additional educational needs returned to class yesterday as special education schools throughout the country reopened their doors.

Under a plan agreed between the Department of Education and teacher and SNA trade unions, 124 special education schools opened their doors with 50% of students attending in turn on different days.

They were joined in their classrooms by up to 4,000 teachers and Special Needs Assistants.

While it was a “fantastic” day for Barbara Hayden’s family and daughter Lauren, it was also one tinged with anxiety for the future.

“It was absolutely fantastic for her to get back yesterday, but unfortunately it's a short-lived feeling because she was only in for the one day,” Barbara told the Sunday World.

“The school is only operating at 50 per cent capacity so she won't be back in today. And then there is the mid- term all next week, so she technically isn't really going back until February 22.

“It’s very confusing for her,” Barbara explained. “Lauren is non-verbal so she can't tell me exactly how she's feeling but you can see from her that she was so excited going back yesterday.

“She speaks with her eyes and her school is everything, literally, it’s part of her life, it's good for her mental health, it’s so important to her.”

Barbara relayed how as a parent she struggled with home-schooling as she feels “not good enough and you have this guilt on you all the time, ‘did I do enough with her today’ but we’re not teachers.”

“I’m completely crashed now. It’s mentally and physically exhausting but you have to keep going. I'm up early with her and you have to do everything for her.”

Lauren attends St Joseph’s School in Drumcondra where Barbara says, “the teachers, the SNA and all the staff have done everything they possibly can”.

“But it’s not just academic learning for Lauren,” she added. “It’s absolutely essential that she goes to school. And we were getting help from the school and there were Zoom calls and she could hear her teacher's voice, but that is not the solution. The solution is for her to be in an actual classroom.

“Any child thrives on routine and if they don’t have a routine, they don’t know what’s happening.

But with special needs children like Lauren, you can’t explain what is going on. She doesn’t understand and you can’t explain it to her.

“As a result her behaviour has gotten really bad, she’s stressed out and she has had numerous seizures. She’s epileptic and that’s part of the condition she has, a genetic condition.

“But she has had stages where it can hit ten-fold. Like, anytime she's at home from school during lockdown or holidays, she'll always have a high level of seizures.

“And then, when she goes back to school I’ll say to the teacher, ‘watch her, she's taken a lot of seizures’. And at the end of the day, the teacher will say she didn’t have any. So, it’s obviously something that we don't know about that's triggering the seizures. It’s probably because she's not as active as she would be in school."

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 Lauren Hayden

Lauren Hayden

Lauren Hayden

Barbara said that during the first lockdown it was a little bit easier because the weather was nicer “and you could get around a bit”.

“It was taking the pressure off myself, not to have to do all these sensory activities with her, and we could at least get out for a walk in the sunshine and smell the plants and the grass and the fresh air but the winter is just too cold to do that.”

Barbara stressed that as Lauren is so vulnerable that they would not, under any circumstances, have sent her back to school if they thought it was not safe.

“We know that school and they have the best of everything there for children like Lauren. And they can protect her as well as anyone can from Covid. And I’m really confident that she’s safe there. I mean they have big classrooms and every facility that we wouldn't have at home. And her world is just switched back on.

“Our hopes were raised when they told us the school would be going back this week but to be told that they would be off today and then for midterm, it’s just so difficult. And for Lauren, she’ll be all happy today and then tomorrow she won’t be allowed to go and she won't understand why. It’s not fair.”

Special classes in mainstream primary and secondary schools are due to reopen on Monday, February 22 following a deal between post-primary teacher unions, the ASTI and the TUI, and Fórsa which represents SNAs.

More than 10,000 students with additional educational needs attend special classes at either primary or post-primary level.

The National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education said special schools were ready and keen to reopen.

However, some parents whose children have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable have opted to keep them at home.

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